Secular Sunday: Case for a Creator: Chapter 3, Part 5
I’m sure that you have all seen this image:
I honestly think that this single image has done more damage to scientific progress — not just evolutionary theory, but science — than almost anything else. With the exception, of course, of religious dogmas.
PZ Meyers at Pharyngula did a post on what’s wrong with this picture. His entire post is worth reading, particularly as it includes a much better visualization of what the evolutionary tree looks like, but his complaints about the image above are as follows:
It implies that evolution is linear, that it is going somewhere, and of course, that it is all about people — all the wrong messages. Yet it is ubiquitous, and probably the most common rendering you’ll find anywhere…
This is actually a problem. When we’re trying to get the message of the science of evolution across to people, one thing that helps is having a story — people respond well to narratives. The canonical image definitely tells a story, which is probably why it caught the public imagination so well, but the problem is that it is the wrong story.
This is, indeed, the most common misunderstanding of evolutionary theory — that A led to B, and A disappeared from the earth. Then B led to C, and B disappeared. And we continued going forward until at some point evolution reached humans, and then it stopped because it was done.
Surely you have heard the argument: “If we are descended from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” Evolution, of course, doesn’t imply that we evolved from monkeys, but that damn picture that everyone knows sure makes it seem like that’s exactly what the theory is about.
To the contrary, evolution implies that we evolved from the same distant ancestor as monkeys did. Think of it this way: your grandparents, on your mother’s side, are named Smith. They had a daughter (your mother) and a son (your uncle). Your mother married a man named Johnson, so your name is Johnson. When your uncle married, his wife took his name, so their children — your cousins — are named Smith.
The evolutionary skeptic is essentially asking “If we descended from Smiths, how come there are still Smiths?” The saying goes that there are no stupid questions, but this one is pretty close.
In the final part of the Wells interview, addressing “Icon of Evolution #4: Archaeopteryx,” Wells essentially asks the same question:
“The question is, do you get from a reptile to a bird — which is an astonishingly huge step — by some totally natural process or does this require the intervention of a designer? An archaeopteryx, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t show us one way or the other. Besides, we see strange animals around today, like the duck-billed platypus, which nobody considers transitional but which has characteristics of different classes.” [page 57]
In other words, “If the archaeopteryx represented a transition between birds and other animals, how come we still have animals that defy classification?”
And then he “insists” that archaeopteryx is not, in fact, transitionary:
“It’s a bird with modern feathers, and birds are very different from reptiles in many important ways — their breeding system, their bone structure, their lungs, their distribution of weight and muscles. It’s a bird, that’s clear — not part bird and part reptile.” [ibid]
Yeah, except no. Check out All About Archaeopteryx, which is a short compendium of the scientific data about the specimen. It lists 23 important characteristics of the fossils — four of those are avian (bird-like) features, the other nineteen are reptilian. Whether Wells was simply unaware of these reptilian characteristics, I can’t say for sure. But considering the guy has a Ph.D in evolutionary biology, I can only assume that he does, and chose to commit a lie of omission to make his case. It’s also worth noting that there are no endnotes or other references to other scientific studies or papers which reach the same conclusion that Wells declares here.
So Wells’ dismissal of archaeopteryx comes down, as is the pattern, to a lying “nuh-uh.” Strobel then spends the rest of the chapter basically claiming that there are no transitionary fossils. None have ever been found. This is a common creationist argument, and is, once again, a lie.
There’s a lot of information out there, a lot of evidence, and I don’t have the time, expertise, or interest to list every last one of them. Fortunately, I don’t need to. Though I said I wasn’t going to fall back on TalkOrigins if I could help it, this subject is so vast, so broadly supported and so dense with information that I would spend a long, long time re-stating information that’s all been conveniently collected in one place. So if you want to know more, I highly, highly recommend you peruse that site. And if you don’t, that’s fine, but don’t turn around and claim you’re interested in “the truth.”
Likewise they take the time to “debunk” (i.e. misinform or lie about) other fossils, particularly pre-human fossil forms, like Java Man. Again, the fact is that they’re just sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “LALALA” rather than actually providing any real, documented evidence in the debunking of Java Man or any other fossils like Australopithecus.
Ultimately the problem is with this talk of “transitionary fossils.” What creationists either don’t understand, or don’t wish to, is that every organism is a transitionary organism. Even you are transitional — a transition between your parents and your offspring. The differences are not massive between one generation and the next, but they are there. And it is the accumulation of these small changes over millions of years that causes evolutionary change to occur.
Creationists often like to present this straw-man version of evolution, whereby they claim evolution states that we ought to see clear and identifiable transitionary forms between animals. Not just ones that express similar features to more than one modern form, oh no. They want to know why, if evolution is true, we’ve never found a crocoduck.
I want to be absolutely clear that this image is not a parody of creationist beliefs. This is an image that they actually created believing that it accurately represented what evolution says we ought to see. It was created by an organization called Way of the Master, whose spokespeople (and, as far as I can tell, only members) are Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian, and Kirk Cameron.
Yes, that Kirk Cameron.
I have to be fair to Wells, and Strobel, in that they do not at any point propose anything nearly this moronic. But while we’re on the subject of transitionary organisms, I wanted to touch on this.
I linked to Ray Comfort’s blog above, and it won’t take you long to notice that the guy is a complete idiot. Most of the people reading this blog, atheist and theist alike, can probably agree amicably on that. We’re talking about a man who once stated, in all seriousness, that bananas prove the existence of a designer God.
(He has since backpedaled, trying to claim that he was parodying evolutionary theory. He does not seem to understand what parody means, as he was, if anything, parodying creationism.)
But the terrifying part is, there are people on that site who think he knows what the fuck he’s talking about. And while I’ve never heard anyone seriously use the banana argument, I have actually heard people use a variation of the crocoduck, or at least arguments that demonstrate the same basic misunderstanding of evolution as leads to such nonsense as crocoducks.
“If evolution is true,” they ask, and often with a smug air of someone who thinks they’re about to deliver a crushing blow, “then why can’t I sprout wings and fly? It would certainly have a positive benefit, and that’s what evolution is about, right?”
Or, “Why haven’t we ever seen a dog give birth to a cat?”
Seriously, I’ve heard those. More than once. The astonishing thing is that they claim that the lack of these observations disproves evolution, when in fact if those events, or events like them, were observed, that would disprove evolution!
I sincerely hope that I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with this characterization of evolution, but I’m going to anyway just in case.
- Evolution does not work on individuals, it works across generations. You do not evolve, but you are on in a chain of organisms that have slight differences from one generation to the next, the accumulation of which we call evolution.
I blame our popular mythology (i.e. movies, comics, and television) for this more than religion, frankly. Damn near everything that involves normal people gaining extraordinary powers describes them as having “evolved.” X-Men, Spider-Man, Captain America. I re-watched Dark City the other night, and the main character, who has somehow gained the ability to “tune” as the Strangers do, is hypothesized — by the scientist character in the film! — as possibly being “the next step up the evolutionary ladder.” Even fucking Pokémon ingrains the idea, from a young age, that evolution happens to an individual, changing them from one state to another.
That’s not evolution, that’s metamorphosis.
Look, there’s a lot of dramatic power in metamorphosis, so I don’t propose that we remove it from the culture or place a moratorium on its use in fiction. If you place stock in Joseph Campbell (and I do), you basically can’t tell a story without some form of metamorphosis — though he uses it to mean internal changes as well. But dammit, it’s not evolution!
And by the way, the idea that evolution is a “ladder,” that always leads “up” as though there was some goal, leads me to my next point:
- Evolution does not have a goal.
Evolution is not a process driven by consciousness. It does not know that one particular adaptation will benefit an organism more than another. It is not a ladder that organisms are climbing in an attempt to reach some kind of “ultimate” state.
Let me repeat that because it is so frigging embedded in the culture: evolution is not a ladder. It is a process that happens. It’s not going “up” or “down.” If anything, it’s moving out to the sides. We talk about “advanced” organisms — and enjoy the notion that we are at the top of that list, and in some ways, as far as we know, we are — but evolution did not occur with the “goal” of creating us, nor has it stopped now that we are here. We are another milestone in a long line of them, and more than likely not the last of them. We are not something the universe set out to create, we are just something that happened. We are, as the terminology goes, emergent. We are what we are, and other organisms are what they are, because they are the accumulation of beneficial mutations that gave them a survival advantage.
And as a related point:
- Evolution is not a conscious process.
This may sound like I’m repeating the previous point, but it’s a little bit different. A lot of people who argue against evolution like to ask about why single-celled organisms “decided” to become multi-celled, or why — as in the example above — they can’t just “decide” to sprout wings and fly.
While it’s true that we are able to consciously control evolution to an extent via selective breeding (that, by the way, is where Ray Comfort’s bananas come from — wild bananas are quite different than the ones you can buy in the supermarket), it is not a matter of an individual consciously deciding to change their genetics, or deciding to give birth to a genetically altered child.
Well, I should adjust that because we may very well gain that ability at some point as we gain knowledge of genetics. I should say that the evolutionary process that led us to this point has not been consciously controlled. A lizard did not “decide” that it would do well to grow feathers and wings and thus become a bird. And likewise neither can we do so — at least not yet.
Anyway, I went a little bit off the path of Case for a Creator, but mainly because it’s about to move away from biological evolution now that we’re out of Chapter 3, and I wanted to address this while we were on the subject.
Strobel and his buddy Wells have totally failed to produce a single tenable objection to evolutionary biology. But let’s say, just for a moment, that they’d hit the mark. Let’s say that they had totally destroyed evolution. They didn’t, but let’s pretend they did. Does this, in any way, support or even make the “Case for a Creator”?
Sadly, no. They spent the whole chapter saying why evolution isn’t true, and yet did not bother to produce a single shred of evidence indicating that the creator hypothesis is true. Indeed, they didn’t even give a single reason that the creator hypothesis ought to be entered into serious consideration. They seem to think that a creator is the only, and the obvious, option if evolution is false. And it just isn’t. It’s a false dichotomy, and the best they’ve got is “it’s as good as any other explanation!”
First of all, no it’s not. And secondly, it needs to be more than “as good as any other.” It needs to be “the best explanation possible.”
So despite taking five dedicated posts to get through on my part, and several others to expand upon the misunderstandings and outright bullshit set forth, Chapter 3 failed to add any credible evidence — or any evidence whatsoever — to the titular Case.
Religious nonsense: 0
With that we’re done with Chapter 3, but don’t pop the cork or start celebrating just yet — we’ve got eight more to go. Next time, we finally move on to Chapter 4: Where Science Meets Faith.