Sunday, February 1, 2009


Darwin and The Origin of Species have been in the news quite a bit lately, seeing as how they're both nice big round numbers old recently. It's been over 80 years since the Scopes trial. It's very depressing to realize that almost no one believes in evolution. Of course, you probably disagree. Perhaps you think that too many people believe in evolution. Perhaps you think that you believe in evolution. Chances are, you're wrong. Let me explain. (Unlike Inigo Montoya, I suck at summing up. I'm sure those of you who've been reading here long agree...)

As with so very many things, it all comes down to a question of definitions. First, let's talk some about what evolution is. There are certainly some good definitions in a nearby dictionary, but those are generally immaterial to the point at hand. What's more interesting to me is what people tend to mean when they say "evolution". The first is the most entirely logical. If you accept as fact that organisms inherit traits from their parents, then it follows naturally that if an organism is unable to procreate, its traits will not flow into the next generation. Thus, the average traits of that organism have a tendency to migrate towards a configuration that is capable of reproduction before death. I believe that this is generally accepted. (So, perhaps nearly everyone believes in evolution. I'm sure there's some disagreement there too.)

So, what do people mean when they say they don't believe in evolution? They may mean that they don't believe that all life evolved from archean prokaryotes. That is certainly a tough pill to swallow, but I think the biggest barrier is the ability to conceptualize a billion years, let alone four. For many, it may mean a disagreement on the genesis of life which, interestingly, has little or nothing to do with evolution. In order for evolution to exist, life must precede it. There are plenty of theories about where life came from, be it random chance, panspermia, or the hand of God, but evolution talks about what happened after that. For most, it seems to mean that they don't believe that man evolved from the lesser primates. Some believe that God created man. While this doesn't preclude a belief in evolution, those who hold this belief generally claim that they don't believe in evolution. (Personally, I have difficulty believing in the possibility of a non-omnipotent God. An omnipotent God could have created the universe 14 billion years ago. He could have created the Earth 4 billion years ago. He could have created everything on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. He could have created everything 4 minutes ago, including you, me, and all of our memories. But I digress...)

So, let us consider the people who claim that they believe in evolution. For many, their attitudes do not bear that out. You will note that among those who claim a belief in evolution, there is a very strong tendency to make a distinction between that which is natural, and that which is man-made. If you actually do believe in evolution, then that which is man-made is a subset of that which is natural. Also, this begs the question(1), exactly when did the works of man break off as no longer a work of nature? Was it the advent of H. Erectus? The beginnings of civilization? Last Tuesday?

Moving on from that, we come to our next definition, that being the word "believe". There are two distinct definitions of this word. The sense that I have used in the preceding paragraphs is that of accepting the existence of a thing. The other sense is that of accepting as beneficial. Most notably among those who believe in the existence of evolution, one finds a notable lack of a belief that it's a good idea. Consider gopherus agassizii, a turtle which, when picked up by a helpful person trying to move it out of the road, will become so frightened that it will empty its bladder, thus losing so much water that it becomes dehydrated and dies. If your reaction to the perception of a threat is effectively suicide, there may well be an entirely valid reason that you are becoming extinct. And yet, those who say this animal should be protected are often those same ones who claim to believe in evolution.

Even better, try an experiment (please note that I do not accept any liability for damages you may incur as a result). Find a person who meets these three criteria:
  1. They claim to believe in evolution.
  2. They are concerned about the extinction of species from our planet.
  3. They are concerned about the dangers of nuclear waste.
As these beliefs tend to cluster, it shouldn't be particularly difficult to find a subject affected by all of them, however if you wish you may merely imagine a person who might well fit all of those criteria. Tell them that you have devised a novel solution to problems 2 and 3. Explain to them that we can box up nuclear waste, load it aboard cargo planes, fly it to South America, and drop it in the Amazon Rain Forest. The lush, tropical climate, when combined with the ionizing radiation from the nuclear waste, should produce a strong tendency towards mutation. This will in turn cause rapidly enhanced speciation, thus replenishing the earth of the number of species that have been lost to extinction. After outlining this proposal, observe the subject's reaction. Ask yourself this question: Is this the response you would expect from someone who really believes in evolution?

Note 1: For all of you pedantic grammarians out there, yes, I'm well aware that I am misusing that phrase. Irregardless(2) of what you think I will continue to use it as I see fit.

Note 2: OK, yeah, I'm just screwing with you on that one.


rone said...

Nice strawman. I don't know how evolution and ecology are somehow opposed. They're not even on the same axis.

There isn't even any such thing as an "evolution debate"; there's only people who cling to religious dogma, and people who don't.

Anonymous said...

I believe in evolution, in both senses of the word. I would even point out that there is no such thing as a "lesser" primate unless you mean size. Evolution doesn't progress from "lesser" to "greater" as it doesn't "progress." Time passes, pressures change, and traits may re-evolve that had been lost.

I've often pointed out that the only "man-made" substance on Earth is plutonium(1). Everything else is just a clever combination of stuff that we found.

As for evolution, just today at work someone was talking about polar bears and that they face extinction if the ice caps melt. I asked "so what?" It would suck for the bears, but something else would move into the new habitat - and it would probably be a habitat humans find more aesthetically appealing. It's interesting to live in a world with polar bears, but there's nothing special about them that wasn't true of carrier pigeons, mammoths, pterodactyls, or trilobites.

As for nuclear waste in rain forests, well, tricky. I've always thought we should dump it in a deep sea trench and see what turns out to be living on the radiation in 50 years. That far from the sun, any source of energy gets utilized! It could lead to some advances in nuclear energy technology... How's THAT for "believing" in evolution?

The rain forests might actually be under less pressure to change with nuclear waste keeping loggers out. However, radiation poisoning would cause suffering in the short term as the individuals less adapted to the radiation were eliminated. I am not a fan of suffering, personally, so I wouldn't vote for that proposal (see "trenches"). Pressuring change for the sake of change just seems a bit pointless.

(1) This is true in spirit, but traces of one isotope can be found in nature and there are other short-lived isotopes you won't find outside an accelerator.

Lazlo said...

@rone: Please be a bit more specific about the strawman you feel I've created. Second, on the one hand ecology is defined as "a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments", so I'd posit that it's a superset of the study of evolution, but on the other hand I didn't mention ecology. And last, historically, the obvious truth of a proposition has never been a significant impediment to debate about it.

@scrib71: I also believe in evolution, in both senses of the word. (I will say that, being raised fundamentalist agnostic, I look on it in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Pascal's Wager, in that if the world is as godless as it appears, then a study of evolution is useful and worthwhile. If, on the other hand, God created the universe, then he also created all this abundant evidence of evolution, so chances are he wants us to study it. The last possibility, if God created the universe, along with all this evidence of evolution, yet for some reason wants us to distrust the minds and eyes he gave us, then he's being an obnoxious tool, and I'll study evolution just to spite him.)

Lesser probably isn't the right word. I think what I was looking for was more akin to "older" or "less evolved". My understanding is that most primate species have been around for longer than H. Sapiens Sapiens. I believe the current theories are that we didn't evolve directly from any currently extant species of primate, but that we all share a common ancestor (duh), and that the H. Sapiens line broke off after most of the other species of primate did. So the phrase "I'll be a monkey's uncle" should probably be rephrased to "I'll be a monkey's nephew."

I'm not saying that I want to dump nuclear waste in the Amazon. I'm not the one that's worried about species extinction. I'm not a big fan of suffering either. I like your trench idea. I also like the idea of putting it in a big pile with a chain link fence around it saying "if you cross this fence you will die". People crossing the fence anyhow would give us a chance to watch evolution in action.