Re-evolution

whale_evo

I don’t get it.

Conservatives of various stripes have been fighting the idea of evolution ever since Darwin first published The Origin of Species – and lambasting Darwin, as if it were all his doing!

The biggest rallying cry of this issue has been that Evolution is only a theory

Ok, some facts about theories for you:  first, nearly everything in science is based on a theory:  combustion is based on chemical theories regarding the manner in which some substances swap, share, or release electrons … computers are based on theories regarding the manner in which electrons move in artificially-constructed semi-metallic chips … modern medicine is based on a freaking HUGE set of theories regarding the manner in which living organisms interact with other organisms, chemicals, and radiation … nuclear power, and the weapons associated with that technology, is based on theories regarding the way certain elements break down over time …

NONE of it is proven, except by the only test that matters:  when we assume the theory is correct, and base things on that assumption, things work. Cars run on internal combustion, exactly as if the chemical principles involved were proven fact. Computers work exactly as if the theory of semi-conductors is proven fact. Medicine works exactly as if the theories upon which it is based are proven facts.

At which point, there’s really no point in claiming that a theory so well-proven is JUST a theory:  you might just as well treat it as proven fact.

Second:  Evolution is proven every bit as well as any of these examples, and BETTER than certain branches of medicine.  We know for the same reason we know an automobile will work:  we can use the principles and come up with something that WORKS!

And it happened a LONG, LONG, LONG time before any OTHER branch of science.

A very, very long time ago, people noticed that children tended to resemble one or another of their parents. This one has “his mother’s eyes”, that one had “his father’s nose”. You’ve seen it in your own family.  The people who noticed this, also noticed that it seemed to apply to animals and plants, too:  scrawny animals tended to produce more scrawny animals, and poor grain tended to produce more poor grain … but if you breed your scrawny animal with someone else’s strong one, the off-spring were likely to be stronger. Do it again, and the results will be stronger still.

Arabs used it to breed fine horses. Farmers used it to breed strong crops. It was applied to cattle and pigs and sheep and goats. And it worked.

But HOW? Most stock-breeders and farmers didn’t give a damn, but an Augustinian Friar (YES, conservatives, a man of God) was curious about it, and started studying the phenomenon using Peas. Horses and other livestock were expensive, and took time to breed, and had really complex characteristics, but Mendel had a garden-patch, and he was growing peas, and so that’s what he used. He raised various varieties of peas with different characteristics, and started interbreeding them, and kept track of the results, then analyzed the results mathematically. In time, he figured out that SOMETHING in living creatures determined what it’s characteristics would be, and that something was passed-on to offspring, mixed with a similar something from the other parent, and that the MIX of these two somethings would decide what the offspring looked like.  He found that certain characteristics were dominant, and that there was a specific mathematical probability of a trait being passed on …

It was only a theory. No one knew about DNA, genes, codons, enzymes, or any of the other stuff that would eventually turn out to be responsible … what WAS known, was that if you treated these unknown quantities like they really existed, you could predict with fair accuracy what would happen when you crossed this pea with that one. And it worked.

Worked just as well for horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, wheat, barley, corn, etc …

It was 1866.

Ok, here’s the thing:  Mendel was FORCING evolution on his pea-plants … but the same process happens in nature, as Charles Darwin would later observe … the only difference was that in Mendel’s case, plants were evolving to suit HIS needs … in nature, evolution happens to suit the needs of the organism itself!

Think of a bird that eats little bugs.  As long as the bugs are just all over the place, it doesn’t matter whether the bird has a big beak, or a small beak, or a straight beak or a curved beak:  in the midst of plenty, all birds of this variety are going to do just fine. But then something happens, and the bugs aren’t so plentiful anymore. Maybe there were just too damned many of these birds, and the bug population was thinned-down … there are still some bugs just out in the open, but there are also bugs that are hiding in crevices in the rocks, and under the bark of trees. Suddenly, birds of this variety with longer, thinner beaks that can reach all those hiding bugs are going to be getting lots more to eat. when they breed, they’ll try to do so with other really well-fed birds, with long, thin beaks – who wants a scrawny, underfed mate? Over time, their offspring will have longer, thinner beaks, who will consume more and more of the available bugs, and the the birds with short, fat beaks are going to feel the pinch. They won’t breed as often, or as successfully, and pretty soon, all you’ll see are the long, thin beaked birds.

THAT is what Charles Darwin saw, in the Galapagos Islands.  It can be seen all over the world, now that we know what to look for, and we can try it out for ourselves, just by finding a species that breeds very rapidly, produces tons of offspring, and can easily be manipulated so that one form or another has an advantage. Fruit-flies work really well.

It’s very simple, very sensible, totally logical, and NONE of it detracts from God in any way – on the contrary, it speaks to God’s glory that he could DEVISE such an elegant mechanism for letting creatures take care of themselves!

Except that WE are subject to it as well. THAT is where the big sticking point is:  if Human beings were not part of this equation, NO ONE would see evolutionary theory as a threat to faith!

But we are. And some people just can’t handle that idea.

The faith-based questioners of Evolutionary theory break down into a couple of groups: the Biblical Literalists, and a group I can really only refer to as the “Good-God-I-can’t-possibly-be-related-to-an-ape!” Types.

The argument of the Biblical Literalists is simply this: Genesis says God created the world, did it in 6 days, and that he specifically designed every single animal in its present form. Including men.  They point to gaps in the fossil record (where so-called ‘Transitional Forms” should be – creatures midway in characteristics between one sort of animal and another, representing a stage of evolutionary transformation), challenge the validity of radio-carbon and other dating methods, and point out supposed inadequacies of theory (usually by making use of logical fallacies which sound convincing, but are not, in fact, valid forms of reasoning.)

We’ll set aside, for a moment, the discussion of the text – I’ll get back to it, but I want to deal first with the other arguments.

Lack of Transitional Forms 

This is one of the favorite arguments of Creationists of all stamps;  the claim is that there are no “transitional” fossils – despite there being shit-loads of them! It’s based on semantic legerdemain:  show a creationist a “transitional” form fossil, and the immediate claim will be made that it ISN’T transitional, just different …

Take this one, for instance:

Archeopterix ... a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds.

Archeopterix … a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds.

Look closely. The creature has feathered wings – but also a beak-less head, with teeth. It is clearly transitional, and demonstrates the relationship between small, meat-eating dinosaurs, and modern birds, right? “No,” the Creationists claim, “It’s NOT transitional – just a funny creature that LOOKS transitional!”  And they make similar claims for all the OTHER transitional forms they’re presented with – the chart of aquatic animals and their evolutionary forbears that began this article, for instance.

Ok, look, there really IS no counter argument for something like that. There, just isn’t. “NO, that’s not an apple, it simply LOOKS like an apple!” is NOT an argument that can be countered by ANY reasonable person, because it’s not based on reason – it’s based on denial. You can dissect the damned apple in front of the idiot, and he STILL won’t accept that it IS, in FACT, an apple, no matter how many distinct features of an apple you point out!  It simply isn’t possible to argue with someone who won’t accept provable facts … The same holds true for the next big bone of contention.

False Dating Methodology 

No, sadly, they are NOT referring to Adult Friend Finder.  They’re claiming that Radio-Carbon dating, and other similar techniques which make use of radio-phosphorus and the like, are not scientifically supportable. Basically, the argument comes down to this:  Radio-carbon, and similar methods, date specimens by the known rate of decay of these elements within the specimen … every living organism contains carbon. Most of it is regular old Carbon-12, but SOME of it is a variety called Carbon-14 – a form of Carbon containing two addition neutrons, which makes up about 1 part per trillion or far less than 1% of all the carbon on the planet.  The thing that makes Carbon-14 interesting and useful is that it decays at a known rate:  in any given sample, half the carbon-14 will decay in a period of about 5700 years.  That wouldn’t be of a lot of help, except that while something is alive, Carbon is constantly being renewed in the body, by eating, breathing, etc. The instant an organism perishes, though, the process essentially halts: ALL the carbon presently inside the creature remains inside the creature, and the decay process begins … without doing a lot of complex math, you can still see that if something has roughly 1 part per trillion of C-14, then it probably is less than 5700 years old … older objects, you simply compare the ration of C-12 to C-14, and you can get a rough, but usable age on the thing …

There’s a problem with this, from the stand-point of a creationist: they calculate (by strict reading of the Bible) that the whole planet is about 6000 years old, and the rate of decay of carbon is, guess what, just under 6000 years, THEREFORE it’s useless. (Ok, you DID catch the sarcasm, there, right?)  When scientists point out that this argument A) requires that we accept their premise of the age of the Earth, and B) makes no freaking sense, Creationists tend to get all lofty and claim that science doesn’t know everything … again, one can’t argue with denial.

It should be fairly obvious, by now, that there IS no way to win any sort of argument with a creationist … scientists are happy to provide evidence, valid reasoning, and are perfectly happy to agree when an area is poorly defined, unproven, or open to multiple conclusions, while creationists approach the debate with a water canon, of denial and ‘Faith’ – which is really their way of saying “I don’t know, and you shouldn’t, either, because God doesn’t want us to know – until someone comes up with something that sounds good, at which point we plan to adopt that as fact!”

I said I’d come back to the text, though, and this is when that happens …

Genesis wasn’t written as a literal chronicle of the creation. If the Faith-based guys can insist that their interpretation is fact, I can insist that mine is – and MY interpretation is that Genesis was a sweet story told to a wandering group of tribes 4000 years ago … close enough to how things happened to let them get the main idea, that God, in whom I DO believe, created the Universe.  I just don’t believe he needed to explain Relativity, Quantum Theory, Evolutionary Theory, Accretion Theory of Planet Building, and Cosmological Geo-Science to people who could barely calculate, and had no idea that the Planets actually circled the sun …

God DID create the world.  There are scientists who oppose that Idea, but their arguments are as logical as the creationists, on the other side – the claim is that God is unnecessary and therefore shouldn’t be even allowed into the equation; essentially, this minority of scientists claim that it’s exactly as simple to assume everything just appeared out of no where, and that therefore adding in a creator just complicates things. To which I reply, firmly, that God is not unnecessary:  causality is one principal that’s virtually impossible to do away with, at anything above the level of Quantum Mechanics (the realm of the ultra tiny) … it is our daily experience that one thing causes another, which is why creation myths are there in the very first place, and something as enormous as the sudden appearance of EVERYTHING we know simply can’t be assumed to have just happened. Until we can prove what DID happen, we might just as well assume that a Supreme Being of some sort caused it. Necessary assumptions are part of any theoretical framework, and as far as I’m concerned, God is a necessary assumption to this one.

Can’t prove the world wasn’t created in 6 days. For starters, it’s impossible to prove a negative, and all my evidence that the world took a lot longer to make won’t be listened to, anyway. There is, however, a third essential component of the Literalist tradition, that CAN be addressed:  it says that every plant and animal, including mankind was created in its present form – it’s the crux of the argument (if you want to call it that) against evolution.

And I can prove it wrong.

Ok, actually, the Late and brilliant Stephan J. Gould proved it wrong, but I listened to him explain it, and he’s not around anymore, so I’m just going to go ahead and explain it again, and you can decide how much credit I deserve!

It has to do, not with the beauties of evolutionary design, but the clumsiness of it … specifically, it has to do with the Panda’s ‘thumb’.

If you aren’t all that familiar with Panda Bears, they are … well … bears, indigenous to central China. The trouble with Pandas, from an Evolutionary stand-point, is that, while members of the Order Carnivora, they are not, in fact, carnivores – at least, not any more. In fact, they subsist almost entirely on bamboo. How and why is a complicated story, but, to pare it down, they were trapped by various forces in an area that didn’t provide meat that they could get at. They adapted to eat bamboo, instead, and one of the adaptations that’s helped is the development of a ‘thumb’ on each of their front paws. Observing the two Pandas in the National Zoo, Stephan J. Gould was struck with the manner in which Pandas sit around 8-10 hours a day methodically stripping the leaves from bamboo stalks with this ‘thumb’ … looking into things a little more deeply, he found that the ‘thumb’ wasn’t a real thumb at all – the Panda has the five normal digits, in the normal positions, well-adapted to all bear-like pursuits … but it has a thumb, too. It’s actually an odd adaptation of the radial sesamoid bone: a spur of bone at the end of the radius, which, in the Panda, has become elongated …

As a thumb, it sucks. Really.

It’s not very flexible, not full of nerve-tissue the way an ape’s true thumb is. It’s useless for actually gripping something, which is the whole point of a thumb. It’s just good enough to do a passable job at stripping leaves from bamboo. Which is the point.

Look, let’s assume that God is real … that he specifically designed man and the other great apes, and, in fact, all of the Primates, with a genuine thumb … why design the Panda with this cobbled-together, makeshift, pseudo-thumb?

Ok, it’s not proof. Just a big question for the fans of Intelligent Design:  why would an intelligent designer design such a poorly adapted digit for the Panda? I mean, seriously, the Panda’s thumb sucks really badly – but it gets the job done …

Not unlike Evolution.

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~ by dourscot on January 3, 2013.

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