If you haven’t already, it’s time to face the facts: evolution happened. Or rather, it’s still happening—humanity has been aware for hundreds of years now that our species and all others evolved from older, more primitive ancestors. Granted, evolution has not historically benefitted from a wealth of scientific evidence, but with the advent of modern scientific tools such as DNA sequencing, along with an ever increasing catalogue of ancient fossils, we can safely conclude the direction in which all the evidence points. Since the time of Charles Darwin, who himself admitted that his hypothesis lacked sufficient empirical verification, the evidence for evolution has become so overwhelmingly conclusive that the scientific community now almost unanimously regards it as a fact of nature.
Despite this, however, there still exists an astonishing and unwarranted controversy surrounding the education of evolution, particularly in certain areas of the United States, which leads to a significant number of people finishing school or university having fallen frustratingly short of scientific literacy. Many institutions and individuals, including politicians and teachers, hold a steadfast belief that evolution by means of Darwinian natural selection should not be taught in the biology classroom, and despite how easy and enjoyable such a belief is to satirise and ridicule, I think we’re in need of a more earnest approach when it comes to debunking the worryingly absurd arguments that such people are regularly vocalising.
“Just a theory”?
One of the most appalling of misunderstandings I regularly encounter, and the first I wish to briefly debunk, is the prominent idea that “evolution is merely a theory”. The emphasis here is usually not on the word “theory”, but rather the word “merely”, as if use of the word “theory” implies a sense of uncertainty or illegitimacy. On the contrary, a scientific theory is not some kind of trivial guesswork, rather it is the result of the continuous and rigorous testing of a hypothesis, which is formulated to “explain a group of facts or phenomena in the natural world and repeatedly confirmed through experiment or observation” (www.dictionary.com). In fact, labelling a scientific idea as a “theory” is about as complimentary as it gets. So when deniers decide to throw out this genius proposition that evolution is “only a theory”, an appropriate response could be “well . . . yes. But gravity is also only a theory, and I don’t see you throwing yourself out of any windows and attempting to fly because of it.”
A System Of Belief
With that cleared up, I’d like to address another argument that can lead to quite contentious debate. Read the following statement and assess to what extent you agree with its premise:
Science is just as much of a belief system as any other religion, and so it’s only fair that evolution should be taught alongside creationism in schools.
I should hope that you can immediately recognise the problem with such an assertion, however if you find yourself somewhat in agreement, I must make something crystal clear: The scientific method is not a religious belief system. Why? Well, the crucial difference between religiosity and science is that one worldview adapts in light of evidence, whereas the other adapts evidence in light of contradictions with its pre-existing notions. Science embraces that which challenges its ideas and recognises its ignorance. Religion ignores that which challenges its ideas and breeds ignorance. The underlying difference here is incidentally that which makes the scientific community to me so respectable and trustworthy; its ability and willingness to change its mind about everything.
A Matter Of Pride?
So why is it that the simple ideas of natural selection, speciation and common ancestry attract such high levels of hostility? What is it about being cousins with monkeys and chimpanzees that so damages one’s pride? I think there are two explanations:
- Evolution is incompatible with creationism.
- Common ancestry removes our traditional sense of animalistic individuality.
As for the first point, clearly the theory of evolution and the account of creation given in the book of Genesis are incompatible. Not only does the history of evolved life require a time frame significantly larger than that which is implied by scripture, but also nature is riddled with all kinds of phenomena which not only can’t be explained by intelligent design, but can only be explained by evolution. Take, for example, vestigial traits. These interesting organs and structures are features which no longer serve the purpose which they did at some point in an organism’s ancestral past. Not only are these oddities present in a boundless variety of life on Earth, but they are also remarkably common. An example with which you will surely be familiar is the experience of goose bumps, which occur in animals in response to coldness or shock because animals with thick hair can simultaneously insulate themselves and appear physically more imposing when it stands on end, which helps them to survive. Humans, however, are no longer hairy enough to be able to utilise this trick (you can still see it in action if you ever scare your cat, though), so goosebumps have become an entirely useless trait, and I find it to be a rather unconvincing hypothesis that God designed humans with a host of needless features that happen to perfectly correspond with results you would expect to see from natural selection, and which serve no purpose whatsoever other than to confuse evolutionary biologists.
Regarding point number two, there seems to be a reluctance to accept that humanity is but a cog in the clockwork of biology, because at face value this can be interpreted as somewhat of a depressing reality. This needn’t be the case, though! Yes, it does appear that humans are not quite as special and unique amongst the animal kingdom as we once liked to believe, but if you ask me, understanding our true place as a species within the vastness of nature is an incredibly humbling experience. You, I, and all 7 billion human beings on this planet are related not only to each other, but to every bird, tree, whale, flower, spider and lion that also inhabits this rock of ours. How anybody could see this as an distressing realisation is a complete mystery to me.
The declaration of germ theory, quantum theory, gravitational theory, and atomic theory as scientific facts is seldom met with any kind of antagonism, and certainly never with anything quite as extreme as that which so routinely and bitterly challenges evolutionary theory. Whatever the reason, be it religious or not, the hostility towards such a fundamental scientific principle can’t go on. Evolution is not only vitally important to understanding our own selves, the history of earthly life, the nature of antibiotic resistance and more, it is also exceptionally fascinating, and no child or adult should ever be deprived of learning of its wonders. If you ask me, in a world so infected with malice and greed, so occupied with egomania and separation, so divided by politics, religion and class, we are in desperate need of something to remind us that we are all, in essence, one.
Very succinct. Good job! I enjoy & appreciate your work! Thank you!
Nicely done. I don’t know what changes if we accept evolution. The differences between man and other known animals are stark and sufficient for feeling “special”. When was the last time a monkey went to the moon without human aid?…As for creationism, or any reading of Genesis as a detailed physical account of earth history, there are simply too many problems. Believe in the Bible, I do, but believe a worthy message, not details that correspond to our physical earth history.
Amazing read! I think people who reject the theory of evolution either don’t completely understand it, or are just so devoted to their creationist religions that they brush off anything that does not fit into ‘God’s word’ in the Bible. The amount of people who fit into these categories in THIS day and age, with all of our technological advancements, confuses me. Anyways, this was a very good article 🙂
Interestingly enough, and something that bible literalists don’t seem to realise, nowhere in the bible itself is either the bible or any individual book of it described as “God’s word”. WhenSt John’s Gospel opens “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the the Word was God”, it’s referring to Jesus, not any written text. So it seems to me that the doctrine that the bible is the word of God is an unbiblical doctrine. 😉
Whilst there’s no explicit identification of the “word of God / God’s word” with the Bible — after all, the canon of scripture had not been completed when any references to the word of God therein are made — the expression is used numerous times in various letters in the “New Testament”, e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Titus 2:5, Hebrews 4:12 and 13:7, referring in a general sense to messages about/from God, whether spoken or written.
I think as much as a hurt pride keeps the fight going is fear. Mainly, fear of losing one’s worldview, with a dash of fear of introspection. For those that believe in the literal creation of Genesis, the evidence of evolution would then force them to answer the question, “If this part of the bible is wrong, what other parts are?” It doesn’t just put the idea of creation to question, but the entire base of their worldview. In that position, one had to ask themselves what they truly believe in. Some do and decide that they need to really read the bible and device for themselves which pays they believe in and why, and I’m all for that, but many others just simply refuse to look at the evidence and attempt to understand the science, finding it easier or simpler to stick with a story that no longer makes sense, given the evidence.
Great job! Loved it.
The major reason people have difficulty in accepting the strong evidence that you put forth on your sites, regardless how rational and logical it may be, is because people have been taught that denying their faith-based religious beliefs, could result in spending eternity in hell being continuously tortured by fire – the most excruciating pain known to mankind. I submit that the major religions could not have thrived without a threat of this proportion. Without any positive evidence, I sense the majority of believer worship and praise.God more because they fear ending up in hell, more than any other reason.
Maybe. But I suspect it’s simply fidelity to one’s tribe and one’s parents tribe. Not so much fear, but loyalty
Really concisely put, I had never realized the disregard for the word “theory” that is quite distressing. The school systems in Canada are absolutely horrible, all kids and teenagers are taught at one level. There is no higher level classes, nothing provided for intellectuals. All classes are taught at the level that one with a learning disability can pass easily. Now, being in highschool, and one of the (very few) kids actually interested in learning as much as I can, it is a huge struggle to get through without being laughably under stimulated. I have just about completeled all highschool… Two years early I hate seeing kids who are wanting to learn and do stuff pushed to the side and completely ignored because “we don’t need any help with our class”
Anyways on the religion front, would we not have a much more peaceful society if ideas weren’t immediately perceived inimical? You can’t be hurt idea can hurt by considering an idea. Being taught as a child that science is not to be trusted, because it’s merely another farcical belif system contradicting one’s own is tragic.
You’ll enjoy university much more, I hope, Jenna. Meantime, the internet is your friend, just as books and popular lectures were to previous generations of bright young people living in stultifyingly intellectually barren surroundings. And maybe you are fortunate enough to have a more intellectual environment at home than at your school. But yes, it’s a real indictment of Canada’s education system that it doesn’t serve you, and people like you, better.
Any after school clubs going a bit deeper into maths or science or literature or debating skills or drama or chess or a school magazine or some such? If not, could you agitate for one or more to be started for whatever particularly interests you? Perhaps you could enlist a parent or teacher to be the official head, but basically run the thing yourself. Apart from being rewarding in itself, and allowing you to socialise with like-minded folk, it’d look really good on your university application in due course.
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Do you think that it’s pride? That people simply can’t accept they are “only” animals or is it more akin to fear. Having spent their lives being told the invisible man in the sky thinks they are special and that they lose this eternal father figure that they’ve been clinging to like a security blanket?
You’re right when you say fear. It is fear on all sides. Fear from religious, and fear from the evolutionists. But not for the reasons you probably think. It mostly has to do with culture. Atheistic academics use science and evolution as a tool to protect the culture built up around the universities. And, I dare say, the hundreds of thousands they get paid each year. Religious do the same. For every argument you make about one, applies to the other. Most people who comment on the Bible have never read it. Most people who comment on scientific theories have never read a scientific journal. Each are as much the charlatan as the other. If you step back from the conformity, you’ll find both sides are primarily built on passion, or emotion. Neither is right, neither is wrong. It is, now and always, only what YOU say is the truth.
Well, maybe what you assert is true in the circles you move in, Knappstein, but it doesn’t correspond to my own experience. When I was young I believed in God. Now I am a lot older and don’t. When I was young I read the Bible myself and so did my fellow Christians in the church. We may not have been scholars of Hebrew and Greek, but we did comment with some knowledge of what we were talking about. Now I’m a member of a lively Humanist group. Many of us have been religious earlier in our lives. Our chairman has a degree in Theology. When we comment on the bible we speak from knowledge. Others don’t come from religious backgrounds. But they don’t tend to comment on the bible. To them it is as irrelevant as all the other sacred texts of all the other religions that they don’t believe in.
As for the atheistic academics using science and evolution as a tool to protect their culture, I don’t even know what you mean. If the academics are scientists, science and evolution IS their culture. It’s what they study and teach, and what they may need to protect from attack by biblical literalists who want to promote Young Earth Creationist narratives as alternatives to real science. And that’s the case whether the academics are atheists or religious believers. But there is nothing intrinsically anti-religious about academia. Quite the reverse. Many universities and colleges are religious foundations and some still require the teachers and students to profess Christian Faith, or a specific denomination, while many others did in the past, like my own alma mater, the University of Oxford. Those colleges and universities set up as secular institutions are still not ANTI religious in their culture.They arejust bound by their constitutions not to promote one specific denomination or religion.
You may be more correct when you allege that many people comment on scientific theories when they haven’t read scientific journals. But it seems inaccurate to me to call them charlatans for that reason, unless they are pretending to scientific qualifications or expertise which they don’t actually possess. I am not a scientist. I have read some scientific journals every now and then, as well as books of popular science, online articles etc, and visiting museums with interest and enjoyment, but the more technical stuff goes right over my head. I don’t see any reason, though, why a lack of formal scientific qualifications should prevent me or anyone else commenting on scientific theories that we have some understanding of, as long as what we are saying is in line with the consensus of what those who ARE experts in the field are saying. We would only be charlatans if we claimed expertise we didn’t possess.
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The invisible man in the sky is telling them everything is going to be okay, because it’s all part of his plan.
But the invisible man in the sky is perfect. No bad thing is attributable to him, because he gave the people free will, and that’s all their fault. (except weather and stuff, maybe theists can attribute that to science)
But then the invisible man doesn’t have complete control over everything. Because he gave the people free will.
So that means he doesn’t control if anything is going to be okay.
Because he gave people free will.
So really, no one should feel that they get that sort of safety from god.
Unless he is totally omnipotent, and there isn’t free will, but then why would someone think they are safe under the protection of someone who controls terrorism and causes leukemia in children?
Hi would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with?
I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m having a difficult time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and
Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design and style seems
different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique.
P.S My apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!
This is a WordPress blog. WordPress is the best!!! 🙂
I enjoyed the article, please keep writing. You seem quite intelligent and I appreciate the calm way that you express yourself on the subject matter that you address.
Sadly, many if not most of the evolution deniers out there have closed minds and are only interested in the same dogma they were indoctrinated with as children, and I fear your words fall on deaf ears there.
My personal philosophy is thatbif there is a god he/she/it does not lie. This universe is not some kind of sadistic trap where if you believe the evidence in the workd around you, you will burn in a pit of fire for eternity…including, one assumes after the heat death of the universe.
Keep up the good work. If nothing else, you are doing the human race a great service by upholding truth versus nontruth.
Ideas are fine, but without an example that proves them, ideas are just ideas. The defense of evolution you give here is devoid of examples.
There are many sites online (or, if you are old school, in books and magazines) where you can find numerous examples if you spend a little bit of time looking. You can even watch some excellent video coverage of the subject matter on YouTube if you don’t want to read about it.
If you are really interested in the subject matter I’d hope you’d take the time to inform yourself, instead of complaining that the blog isn’t spoon feeding you enough. Do some research on the subject matter; you’ll be the better for your effort.
I’ll do that
Everything you talk about is vague, and not very particular. Which vestigial organs? In any case, the loss of a function does not prove evolution’s ability to gain a new one.
Arguing, that something is useless, is an argument from ignorance. What if they really have a useful function? That means, that the “gap” in your knowledge was covered up by the concept of a vestigial trait. I’m sorry to inform you, that with new discoveries, the number of completely useless traits is going down, not up, so that gap is closing.
Hi Peter, a vestigial trait is not one which serves no purpose; many vestigial traits such as the coccyx serve many useful functions today. A vestigial trait is simply something which serves a purpose today that is different from the purpose it once served in an organism’s ancestral history.
I’m not sure, what a coccyx is, but if it has a function, then it’s not as good of an argument against God. It might be a good argument for evolution, though. It depends on the particulars of the example You chose.
This post is more about defending evolution than trying to disprove God, hence me saying “[w]hatever the reason, be it religious or not, the hostility towards such a fundamental scientific principle can’t go on” in the last paragraph.
I do think some examples of vestigial traits make the God hypothesis unconvincing, but I agree that they alone are not an absolute disproof.
Except for his point on big bang theory, I happen to largely agree with this guy.
Now, I’m curious: does this qualify as hostility towards evolution?
(I’m not expecting you to watch the whole thing, skimming through it in two minutes or less is fine.)
Hi Peter. I am aware that you had this conversation with Alex more than two years ago, and obviously the state of your knowledge about evolution and biology generally, and/or your opinions about these matters or about religion, may have changed a great deal since then, especially if you are young(ish) and have been continuing in full time education. But maybe they haven’t. And I happened to see this exchange (while visiting this site out of curiosity after hearing a talk which Alex gave) just after rereading two excellent and readable books designed for the general interested reader which give you all the scientific detail and evidence that you complained was lacking in Alex’s account. They are “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” and “The Making of the Fittest” by Sean B. Carroll, and they are concerned with the new insights into biology and evolutionary history provided by molecular genetics and the field of evolutionary development, (evo devo). As scientists learn more and more about the precise way that specific bits of DNA are translated into specific effects in the bodies of developing organisms, and compare these stretches of code in different species, the evidence for evolution by natural and sexual selection, and against Intelligent Design, becomes more and more overwhelming, a sort of evidence that was unavailable to past generations because technology simply hadn’t advanced that far, but which is available now in spades, and increasing every year. One can’t hope to have an intelligent, informed, discussion of vestigial features and what they demonstrate without understanding the biology behind how they and all other features develop and are passed on.
Hi Sally yeah I had many interesting debates since then. Generally speaking, the goal for me is not to argue against evolution, but to explore the possibility of it; even if evolution is possible or indeed true, scientists simply expect it to be true, and do not teach it in a way that satisfies my need for a simple, understandable and gapless understanding of the subject. This enrages me. If there is a gap in the theory, theach the gap, dammit. If there is no gap, do not put a gap there by not explaining som concepts simply because you think that they are too difficult for the general public. So that’s my thinking. How does it apply to the situation at hand?
Here’s a reviewer from Amazon on “The making of the fittest”
” At one point he uses a logarithm without even explaining how the equation works, so it raises the question of why he even bothered to show us the math at all if he wasn’t going to explain it.”
“the “arms race” between increasingly drug-resistant bacteria and human-created methods to deal with such germs.”
” I didn’t get the impression that he tied all of this up neatly with the actual idea that accepting the truth of evolution can help us with these things.”
Ok so I haven’t read this book so I cannot confirm this but my issue would be that he kept the maths separate from the rest of the book. He explored important concepts and “rational responses” without marrying the genetic evidence with the maths involved. Without that he’s just exploring genetic fossils all over again.
I have a bunch of questions, and the answers to these questions would make teaching evolution Gapless in my opinion.
1.What is the force that makes a new gene evolve?
2.What is the number of potential targets for the sequence of this new gene, or in other words how many ways there are to realize this as yet nonexistent new function that the organism needs?
3.In an organism, what is the nuber of potential places that this new gene can come from?
4.What is the average number of steps from potential precursor to potential target that evolution needs to take randomly Before selection can kick in?
The icefish is a good example because
1. It needed to have an antifreeze gene.
2. There is a large number of proteins that can act as an antifreeze.
3. I don’t know the answer to this one. It makes me angry when scientists skip the “I don’t know” part of explaining their science.
4. The way the antifreeze gene was realized shows us that there was a small nuber of steps that the precursor needed to take before it could perform this useful new function.
So even though I didn’t use numbers here I can envision that, at least in theory, these numbers could be calculated, thereby giving us the exact probability of the icefish gene evolving. Man I’d have massive respect if they tried to do that.
Hi Peter.So you still get notifications from this site. That’s good. There seems to be no reply window directly under your post, so I don’t know whether this reply goes only to you or appears at the bottom of the thread or what. I understand your looking up the books on Amazon. I did the same myself very recently with a book that someone in an online discussion recommended to me, which was about American academic infighting, written, I gathered, by one of the losers. But whereas YOU were put off by a critical review, I was put off by very enthusiastic endorsements that appeared to be written by family and friends of the author and/or others who felt they had been persecuted for their unorthodox views or who were passionate supporters of those same views. I felt that the book was likely to give a very one-sided account of the events and controversies it purported to describe, and that I’d do better, if I could, to find a forum where the people the book was accusing, or their supporters, also had had the opportunity to respond to those accusations and put their own case.
So if you are understandably reluctant to spend money on a book when you don’t know whether you will find it satisfactory, why don’t you try seeing if you can get it from the library, or simply look up Sean B Carroll online and see if he has a website where you could read his blogs and post questions or comments?
I also understand your desire for a simple, understandable and gapless understanding of evolutionary theory, but I’m sure you appreciate that a lot of stuff in science is neither simple nor readily comprehensible to a non specialist, and that even the trains of reasoning, let alone the data on which it is based, required to make a case for some complex theory, are not going to be reducible to a bite sized post or two. And they may be completely out of the reach of the average person. My own intelligence is some way above average, by all the usual measures. But theoretical physics, except at the most elementary level, just baffles me. Should I therefore argue that Einstein et al must have got it wrong, or that I should be sceptical of their conclusions, because the maths behind them is too hard for me?
However, I do feel that evolution is nothing like that hard to grasp, even for a nonscientist like me, provided that the learner is interested and patient enough. This post is long enough already, but if the site allows me I’ll try to respond to some of your questions in another one.
Still me, Peter.
Your first question “What is the force that makes a new gene evolve?”
By “a new gene” I take it you mean “a stretch of code in the DNA of an organism that differs from that at the corresponding site in the DNA of its progenitors, and which thereby causes some change in the physiology or behaviour of the organism from that of its progenitors”. And that you already know the basics of how DNA is “written”, how its instructions are “read”, and how it is reproduced and passed on to subsequent generations?
(If not, you may need first to mug up on this.)
But, assuming you do, I’m not sure what you mean by “force” in this context. What initially causes alterations at the molecular level in the code, from one generation to the next, mutations? Sometimes, I gather, there are changes caused by radiation in the reproductive organs of the parents. Sometimes there’s a copying error during the reproductive process and a bit of code (sometimes short, sometimes long) gets omitted or transposed or duplicated. However it happens, it is happening all the time.( I think I read somewhere that each of us humans has on average about five of these sorts of mutations from our parents’ DNA, very often not ones that make any appreciable difference to how the code is read.) And it is not a directed process but an accidental, random one. The cosmic ray just happened to hit that particular bit of code and alter one letter. During copying, one bit of code just happened to be duplicated.
At this point, the change in that organism’s DNA might have no effect whatsoever, or not make a significant difference to how it developed. Or it might have a effect that was discernibly different from the older form of the gene, but still was no better or worse for the organism than the older form – a neutral change. But some changes produce lethal results, causing the organism not to develop properly, and others,less immediately lethal, still cause their possessors to be less good at surviving, in their current environment, and successfully reproducing, and passing on their changed gene, than the holders of the old form of the gene. Bear in mind that in the natural world the vast majority of all individual organisms die before they reach maturity and pass on their genes. But occasionally a mutation causes its possessor to have an ADVANTAGE, in its current circumstances, compared to the possessors of the older form of the gene, in terms of either its own survival or its reproductive success. In such a case, that gene is more likely, on average, to get passed on and to spread in the gene pool of that breeding population at the expense of the old form of the gene. Natural selection. And that’s how, over time, a new gene becomes first widespread and then the norm in a particular species, and evolution has occurred.
You could call natural selection a force, I suppose. I think myself that it is an automatic process, and that the force is the constant pressure of competition for resources and mates, and the struggle to avoid dying either by direct predation or from lack of food or warmth or other dangers in a hostile environment. While there’s a lot of chance involved atthe individual level, in the long run genes that give their owners an edge in the survival or reproductive stakes are more likely to get passed on to subsequent generations than genes that don’t give that edge, while genes that put their owners at a disadvantage quickly disappear altogether, along with their unfortunate owners. In a situation where many times more organisms are generated than successfully survive to pass on their genes, and over time and generations, this competitive pressure is all the force required.
I hope you’ll let me know, Peter, if you don’t understand any of that last answer of mine, or want to discuss or dispute it. The others need to wait for a later occasion, but my initial impression is that, as you have formulated them, they really can’t be answered, other than by “It all depends”. Rather like answering the question, “How long is a piece of string?” One can attempt to calculate the statistical chances of particular mutations appearing and becoming fixed in particular populations, and Carroll does do some of that, but until you understand what particular molecular change has generated the particular physiological change you are considering then you have no hope of being able to calculate the chances of it occurring. That’s why I advised you to read these books. (You also need lots of other data, of course. The population size of the species concerned, and how speedily it reproduces, for a start.)
Hi Peter. I was rushed off my feet with offline stuff and never got back to you till now. I have skim read that article by Shroedinger that you linked to, and indeed it was impressive considering its date, as I suppose one might expect from a great physicist like him. ( Though If I understand the last part of his article correctly, where he seems to be arguing for a sort of universal immortal soul, I don’t find his arguments there convincing.)
And, writing in 1944, he did not, obviously, have access to the data accumulated since that time about the actual make up of specific genomes, the particular parts of code whose effects on the organism they inhabit are known, and the way that that code actually accomplishes those effects during development. Neither brilliant theoretical speculation nor a few basic principles can answer those questions you were asking, it seems to me, for either an individual species such as the ice fish or a specific attribute of that species, or for some “average” of all species or useful attributes, without that sort of data, and though scientists are making ever faster progress in unravelling the mysteries of ever more genomes, there is a very long way still to go.
What is more, I feel that the way you seem to be envisioning evolution by a mixture of chance and natural selection as being claimed by evolutionary scientists to happen (and which you have doubts about) is rather different from how they actually think it happens. A mutation at the genetic level causing significant change could be a single allele or switch or a string of code hundreds of characters long, duplicated or excised. Similar changes can be effected by very different means. Organisms are not just waiting around to evolve some new useful attribute which they have “need” of. They are getting on with their lives as best they can with the set of attributes they currently possess, some more successfully than others. The ability to fly is useful enough for several different branches of animals, only distantly related, to have independently evolved it. Flying insects, pterosaurs, birds, bats ( the insectivores and the fruit eaters separately, I think). Not to mention the many others that have evolved gliding but not powered flight. But it seems to have taken millions of years for each of these lineages to have evolved from having no gliding or flying ability to their present states of aerial proficiency – and in some cases to have evolved flightlessness again, or adapted to “flying under water”. And during all that time those lineages were well enough adapted to their current circumstances that they did not die out but left descendants with the same abilities that they had, or ones even better suited to moving through the air. But those creatures that had not yet evolved full powered flight, but had the ability to glide, or raise themselves briefly from the ground by vigorous flapping, or be carried by strong gusts of wind, or whatever we might see now, in retrospect, as being stages on the way to powered flight, did not “NEED” powered flight, any more than a sugar glider or flying frog does nowadays. The ability to glide further could be beneficial, just as the ability to run faster than other people is beneficial for Olympic track athletes. But plenty of species of frogs survive perfectly happily without any ability to glide at all. Plenty of squirrels scamper around trees and leap from branch to branch without the aid of skin flaps. Plenty of insects can’t fly. If a lineage evolves flight, or gliding, well and good. If it doesn’t, it evolves other useful abilities instead. Forelimbs can be wings. But they can also be used for digging, or grasping, or clubbing or tearing, or for running really fast. If a particular ecological niche can only be exploited by a creature that has a specific ability, and a species doesn’t have that ability, then it doesn’t colonise that niche. If the icefish we were talking of a long time back had not developed its antifreeze, it would simply have been restricted to warmer waters.
Hi Sally I’m just spitballing here but I don’t think these questions are as hard to answer as people make them out to be. It just takes some thinking and a few basic principles. In his own time in 1944 Erwin Shroedinger did something similar by making educated guesses about the nature of DNA a good ten years before it was actually discovered.
Click to access What-is-Life.pdf
I live in the upper Midwestern United States, and my high school biology teacher taught evolution in an interesting way. He made the claim that whether or not you believe in creationism or evolution, both perspectives require a “leap of faith.”
Early in this article you admitted that there has historically been a lack evidence for evolution, but that this lack of evidence is being filled with modern technologies and more archaeological research. So, my question for you is, do you think that the “leap of faith” for accepting evolution is growing smaller, and do you think it will ever grow small enough to be considered none?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and speculations. Please, I beg of you, keep writing and making videos!
Do you happen to know which “leap of faith”your biology teacher made himself?
I don’t myself feel that I ever had to make a leap of faith to accept the theory of evolution. A leap of imagination perhaps – there is such a gulf in scale and attributes between, say, a bacterium, a redwood tree and a human that the idea that they all descend from a single ancestral form is not one that would have immediately occurred, I feel, to most people who had no notion of cellular biology and had not been either presented with the idea that all life is related as a well established fact at school or on tv, or been led up to it gradually through learning the connections between more closely related species,such as chimps and humans, or even whales and bats. But the more you study biology the more the evidence stacks up. It really is the only theory in town. Competing hypotheses just don’t compete or compute.
I am new (to Cosmic Skeptic) reader but will add you to my list of daily reading. You might find this clip interesting – taken from Sandwalk by Larry Moran. It speaks to your point regarding “system of belief” –
“Imagine what would happen after a giant meteor strike that wipes out everyone except for a small native tribe in the Andes that had no contact with other people before the apocalypse. All books and all knowledge will be destroyed.
Ten thousand years later there will be science books and they’ll be pretty much the same as the ones we have now because people will simply rediscover the basic truths of nature. There might be religious books but they won’t be anything like the holy books we have now because the people will have invented entirely new gods. That’s the difference between science and religion. “
“Ten thousand years later there will be science books and they’ll be pretty much the same as the ones we have now because people will simply rediscover the basic truths of nature. There might be religious books but they won’t be anything like the holy books we have now because the people will have invented entirely new gods. That’s the difference between science and religion.”
I recall Penn Jillette said something similar, and I think it bears a little critical scrutiny.
It’s philosophically crude to suggest that the “basic truths of nature” are just out there waiting to be discovered, the way European mountaineers discovered snow-capped mountains in equatorial Africa. The scientific method developed in a certain era in Western civilization, and it bears the hallmarks of that era’s ideas about the subject-object distinction, the meaning of things like observation and measurement, and the difference between describing something and explaining it.
The reason we favor materialistic, naturalistic, reductionist approaches to empirical inquiry is because the language thereof was developed by a colonialist, male-dominated culture with its own political and economic motivations and biases. It’s not so obvious to me that in a civilization with a completely different mindset toward nature, industry, domination, and meaning, the exact same conception of scientific inquiry would develop any more than the same languages or religions would develop.
It’s true enough that the language of science was developed in a colonialist, male-dominated etc culture. But surely the basic truths of nature ARE out there, still truths, whether they are discovered or not, like mountains. The earth orbits the sun, and when people did not know this, and believed that the reverse was true, they were mistaken. We may be mistaken nowadays about much in scientific terms that we think we know, but we are surely not mistaken in thinking that there are empirical facts to be known. Either all living organisms have descended and evolved from a universal common ancestor or they haven’t. As a female myself I deplore the way that women have through most of recorded history been excluded from the intellectual and educational opportunities to allow them to contribute as fully as they could have done to scientific discovery, and other areas of thought, with only a few exceptional, and exceptionally circumstanced, women being able to be involved, and many of them facing great difficulties in doing as much as they did. Maybe if women had been allowed more opportunities science would have progressed faster. Or maybe not. And no doubt some political and religious systems encourage free scientific thought and invention more than others. But chemical elements are what they are whether discovered and isolated by a man or a woman. Fossils have been discovered by men, women and children. Less knowledgeable, interested, patient, determined or lucky people might have missed them or destroyed them, or misidentified them as something they were not. But those fossils all have a history. Even if we don’t know it, there are truths there, potentially, to be known.
I affirm the validity of species evolution 100%, common ancestry, molecules-to-man, the whole shebang. But I think there’s something hypocritical about characterizing evolution (or science itself) as some sort of systematized atheism, then wondering why there’s so much pushback from religious fundamentalists about evolution. If our aim is to get schools to teach evolution, and it should be, then we might have to moderate our rhetoric.
Evolutionary biology, as you say, is an important and fascinating subject. And it’s too important to be used as a weapon in a culture war that’s less about science and more about imposing conformity of opinion and establishing unquestionable authority.
It’s not the evolutionary scientists, or those ordinary members of the public who accept evolution, who characterise evolution or science as systematised atheism. That’s the rhetoric of the religious fundamentalists, who try constantly to portray evolutionary theory as some sort of stalking hose for atheism, brushing under the carpet the fact that the majority of the people who do accept the theory of evolution, worldwide, would also describe themselves as adherents of some sort of religion. Most Christians are evolutionists as well. They think that’s how God chose to create. True, nearly all atheists are evolutionists. Why wouldn’t they be, since it’s a scientific theory that doesn’t require some intelligent agent to have designed the complex life we see around us? And many scientists, from Darwin onwards, have lost a previously held faith as they learned more about the natural world and its operations. But when the scientifically literate want evolution taught properly in schools, it’s not in order to promote atheism. scientists just want religious doctrinaires to stop trying to interfere with the science curriculum, where they have no business. As they don’t in any other subject thanreligious studies, in countries where this is taught. Should physicists, when they teach the solar system, be expected to present an alternative theory, that the earth is disc shaped and the sun and moon revolve around it daily? Or “teach the controversy” as to whether lightning is an electrical discharge caused by atmospheric conditions, or an angry Zeus, or Thor, or one of dozens of other thunder gods, chucking down a thunderbolt? Should modern language teachers be required to start their courses by teaching that there is a “theory” that all the people of the world spoke one language, until they got too arrogant and tried to build the Tower of Babel, and God decided they needed to be kept divided? Should historians, when they teach the Reformation, be obliged in Catholic countries to tell their pupils that Luther and Calvin et al were heretics prompted by Satan, while in Protestant countries the teachers are being required to teach that the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon and the Scarlet Woman referred to in Revelation, and both lots are describing the Crusades as a Good Thing?
I find it hard to live as an atheist without an ultimate purpose, that we all are going to die. And if ancient human managed to ask the same question like mine, I find it hard to believe they have big enough brain to write the Bible.
That we are all going to die does not seem to me to be a good reason to decide that one can have no purpose in life. It is not necessary for something to last for ever for it to be worthwhile, surely. And ancient humans ( humans who lived two to three thousand years ago, anyway) had very similar brain power to modern ones, I’m sure, though their cultures were different in many ways and they had far less technology and accumulated scientific knowledge. We nowadays have the advantage of having, if we choose to make use of it, all the information and wisdom that THEY had, plus all the things that people in subsequent centuries discovered or thought, that were preserved, so we have little excuse for our ignorance if we don’t know more in some areas.But they were plenty bright enough to write, at various times and places, the texts that now make up the Bible, and many other things besides.
“It is extremely improbable that proteins and nucleic acids, both of which are structurally complex, arose spontaneously in the same place at the same time. And so, at first glance, one might have to conclude that life could never, in fact, have originated by chemical means.” [Leslie E. Orgel, “The Origin of Life on the Earth,” Scientific American, vol. 271, October, 1994, p. 78.
The construction blueprints of protein are carried in Genes, long chains of which carry out many important functions. The genetic code determines how cells utilise the sequence information to determine the precise arrangement of amino acids. The correct order confers a precise structure, the stable fold performs a necessary biological function.
Different sequences form any number of protein folds. For example Photosynthesis requires the interplay of many highly functional proteins which are assembled within the range of certain tolerances.
As Darwin himself stated:
‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications my theory would absolutely breakdown.’
The mechanism of Natural Selection lacks creativity. It can only operate once there is something to select from!
Before life you need proteins and proteins come in different guises. They can perform their task as a single chain or as an intricately shaped globular structure. The corresponding shape determines their function; as well as the specific sequence of amino acids, from which they are composed.
How proteins manage to fold into a precise shape is a mystery which has compelled years of active study. A greater understanding of protein structure is important in deciphering the mystery of life. Can chance alone (random variation) explain the sequence specific functionality of proteins?
Firstly, the number of possible sequence permutations that proteins can occupy is vast. Yet the number of extant proteins is comparatively small and are scattered over huge sequence spaces, which must be successfully traversed if the correct functional sequence is to be located. A purely random search is bound to fail. Unless the correct sequences are conveniently bunched together (or are easily located and the fitness landscape is easily navigable).
Explaining the native protein diversity without design (a predetermined sequence target and overall function) is difficult.
Perhaps the first load of proteins were crudely devised rudiments and possessed a few essential amino acids to get life started. Or the proteins were minuscule in scale and none-specific. The fitness landscape can be reduced somewhat, and a purely random search would be successful.
Hypothetically, evolution may have ‘stumbled’ on viable folds and, and Natural Selection eliminated undesirable chains and preserved highly functional protein sequences, or later recombined pre-existing proteins into functional structures. Which begs the question—which chemical pathway led to the formation of the first protein?
In each of these scenarios, proteins must be highly tolerant of sequence rearrangements. A deletion or incorrect insertion can cause a catastrophic loss of function. We must also address the issue of finite starting material. Considering the issue of limited material and the fact the Natural Selection is a blind unguided process without the ability to indicate a target, then we must also assume that that Natural Selection is unable to return to the inception point. Evolution does not keep notes! How does it start over?
Proteins must be arranged in specific biosynthetic pathways that characterise different cells.
Moreover, protein synthesis can pose a challenge for a team of biochemist working in a sterile environment, with easy access to starting material (on order). Including the use of sophisticated algorithms, that requires that certain parameters be established, and a target sequence is chosen (by a mind). Also, the skillful intervention of the biochemists ensures that no runaway side reactions occur (steric hinderance).
Other hurdles proteins must overcome-
Side Chain Freeze- considerable loss of side chain conformational entropy at the last stages of collapse.
Must overcome the kinetic and thermodynamic difficulty of folding.
If the chain is ‘forced’ enough to collapse it will subsequently cause the side chains to freeze.
A kinetic folding pathway is required and must be free of energy traps and energy barriers. The folding kinetics are sequence dependent.
Folding rates depend on external conditions such temperature.
Even when the temperature is high enough to denature the molecules it is still not high enough to surmount the kinetic barriers, so the protein molecules are unable to achieve stable native populations in a reasonable amount of time (far from the usual orthodoxy time is certainly not on the side of evolution)
What makes proteins so unique is less a matter of the monomer types and more of the correct sequences of the amino acids. New sequences require new information, which begs the questions how does a blind unguided process generate new information?
Mount Improbable is more like Mount Impossible!
“I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant that the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology. Evolution should be able to explain, in theory at least, all the way back to the very first organism that could replicate itself through biological or chemical processes. And to understand that organism fully, we would simply have to know what came before it. And right now we are nowhere close.” [Gordy Slack (science writer and author), “What Neo-creationists Get Right: An Evolutionist Shares Lessons He’s Learned from the Intelligent Design Camp,” The Scientist, June. 2009.]
Interesting, Ansar. I’m no scientist, so I can’t discuss the scientific details of what you talk about, but you did make some more general points I’d like to respond to.
First, you bookend your post with quotes from two scientists writing in two scientific journals. I’ve learnt to be very wary of quotes from either acknowledgedly great scientists, or from people writing in distinguished peer-reviewed scientific journals, when the quoter is not looking in detail at the totality of the article or other source of the quote, and there is any possibility than the quoter does not himself agree with the conclusions of the article, or the general theories of the great scientists. I have come across so many cases of cherrypicked quotes, where the full context gives a totally opposite impression from the quote out of context.
And although I could be mistaken that first quote looks very much as though that could be the case.
Orgel writes, “And so, at first glance, one might have to conclude that life could never, in fact, have arisen by chemical means.”
That “at first glance” very strongly suggests to me that in the rest of the article he indicates that when he gave it a much more searching second look he concluded that on the contrary, life could, or even probably DID, arise by chemical means.
Now, you may feel that his following arguments are not persuasive, in which case you could quote them and provide counter arguments and evidence against them, making it clear that you disagreed with the writer. But it is not fair, or scientifically honest, to selectively quote someone who is setting out a “problem” prior to suggesting a solution to the problem, so as to imply that the “problem” has no suggested solution, and that the quoted person’s views were in complete harmony with yours.