evolution, devilution

Devilution of Darwin--animation by MasterymisteryWhy is it that of all the scientific theories, Evolution is the one that unfailingly evokes the most hostility in some quarters?

Newton's laws of motion are taught without any demands for a countervailing 'religious' explanation to be taught alongside. Einstein's theory of relativity is taught and learned by believers and unbelievers alike, and acknowledged as probably the best current explanation for gravity and light, with 'best' meaning 'closest to the mark'. Even Cosmology has achieved a rapprochement of sorts with the mainstream monotheistic religions. (You know things are getting very weird when the Pope buys into the Big Bang.) So what is it about Evolution that is particularly devilish and ungodly?

And if one particular conception of god has a valid place in biology (and thereby, anthropology and archaeology) then why not other fields of study? Why not Creationist Engineering, for example? Or Holy Logistics? Sacred Sociology? Hallowed Horticulture? Blessed Botany?

Evolution strikes close to home. It's about creatures, organisms: ourselves included. It's not about the sun or the moon or the stars or the sea (although there is nothing in principle from preventing evolutionary theory from being validly applied to things other than organisms (especially if everything is an organism!)).

Evolution is as personal as underwear. People don't like Evolution because it says things about us behind our backs, without consulting us first. And we don't like what it says either. It says it knows where we came from and why we are the way we are. But we humans are 'irreducibly complex' (or so the argument goes) and therefore could not and cannot be hostage to a mere scientific theory (or so the argument goes). That's why we hate Evolution so much: it provides a context in which to understand ourselves better. Unfortunately, generally speaking we don't like knowing and don't want to know ourselves better.

As well as being the most hated scientific theory, Evolution is also the least understood (noting that the word 'theory' in the scientific context does not necessarily mean 'non-factual' or 'untrue' or 'hypothetical'. Wikipaedia covers this reasonably well.) Sadly, the reasons why Evolution is hated are mainly spurious, and reflect ignorance rather than considered, informed opinion.

Evolution doesn't say that monkeys evolved into humans. Evolution says that something evolved into monkeys, and the very same something evolved also into humans. Or in other words, that monkeys and humans share a common ancestor. Or even that an early part of the set of monkey ancestors overlaps an early part of the set of human ancestors, so that some of the earliest ancestors are common to both monkeys and humans. If you don't like the word 'ancestor' in the above context, you can substitute 'predecessor' or 'precursor' or whatever moves you. (From a fundamentalist point of view, it's bad to have a monkey for an ancestor, but far worse to have an ancestor of a monkey for an ancestor. On the other hand, it's not quite as bad to have a monkey as a precursor than an ancestor!)

There's no purpose to evolution, no direction in which 'lesser' creatures evolve towards being 'greater' or 'higher' creatures. There are no lesser creatures, no higher creatures. There is no teleology to Evolution, no purpose. There's no direction, no start point, no end point. There's no evolution towards. There is only random change, and random response to change. But how cool is that?! Isn't it amazing how much diversity and richness can spring from the simple mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection?

At any moment, each and every prospectively non-extinct species is as well adapted as any other to its environmental circumstances. Survival = good adaptivity. Extinction = bad adaptivity. There's nothing in between, no shades of grey. It's like pregnancy. Either you are or you're not. A species can't be just a little bit extinct.

So you can't meaningfully compare the adaptivity of one species to that of another, even if the two species live in the same environment. What metric would you use? Lifespan? Comparing the average lifespan of the members of species X with the average lifespan of the members of species Y tells you which species is longer-lived, but tells you nothing about the relative adaptivity of X vs Y. Average lifespan is highly variable from species to species, and is determined by a large number of different factors including environmental as well as genetic factors.

Likewise, comparing the birth rate of one species vs another tells you about the relative fecundity of the two species, but nothing about the relative adaptivity.

It's true that oranges are better at tasting like oranges than apples are at tasting like oranges, but that doesn't mean that oranges taste better than apples. It's also true that apples are good at tasting like apples, and oranges like oranges, but that still doesn't mean that oranges taste better than apples or vice versa.

But it would seem to be valid to compare the relative adaptivity of a species at one point in time with the adaptivity of the same species at another point in time. It would seem to be true that a species can become better or less well adapted than it was before, or than it will be, in terms of lifespan, or birth/death ratio or whatever metric you care to use. I keep using the word "seems" because for any given species, any changes (in eg lifespan or birthrate) only come about as the result of changes in the external environment; so it's not the adaptivity that is changing, it is the external environment changing.

A species that is longer-lived at time T(ii) than at time T(i) is not better adapted at T(ii) than at T(i). Rather, the species is adapted to the environment at T(ii), and is adapted to the environment at T(i). The same point can be made in relation to a species that is longer lived in one place/environment P(i) than in another place/environment P(ii).

IMHO nothing of the above is incompatible with deity. The fact of Evolution may or may not be to the greater glory of whoever or whatever may or may not have set it all up in the first place, assuming there was a first place. And/or if it wasn't set up in the first place, if there was no first place, it would still be no less glorious... well, you know what I mean.


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Adam Stephens said...

Without getting into the particulars of particular doctrines, it seems to me the biggest problem people have with the idea of having evolved from other species, and more generally of other species having evolved are three. The first is that the idea closes a gap between the human being and the rest of material creation; we have long though of ourselves as existing in a sort of in-between state above the material world and below the immaterial worlds of the heavens. It is a long and understandable strain of human thought to distance ourselves from other animals, given that we can build cities and predict lunar eclipses and send ourselves to the Moon and back. We have in our language in our culture, in so many millions of ways established a separation between what is human and what is not human. It is acceptable to do some things to humans, such as ask them about their day, marry them, give them a driver's lisence, that is wholly unacceptable often for very good reason, sometimes not for good reason at all, to do to the rest of material existence.

The second problem is that the idea demolishes a large portion of the comprehensibility of biological nature. Notice that the Creationists really, really like that part in Genesis about the "kinds". The thought that a species is a real, distinct classification, and that there is a specific number of them, whether knowable or not, is comforting. Realizing that the lines between species blurs to the point of essentially ceasing to exist at all is frightening. This seems like a small thing which no one really talks about, but it is an essential difference between the structures of the two world-views.

The third problem is more reasonable, and is not a criticism of the concept of evolution itself, but of the current formulation of the theory. It is, in my opinion, the notion of purpose. It is asserted that evolution happens blindly by way of random mutations, but that is a baseless, unprovable assertion. We do not know that and probably can not know that. If there is some subtle underlying intelligence to nature informing evolution in small ways the world would still look much as we see it and, just as now, we would have no way to tell that it is there or not according to current scientific methods. But through the growing field of epigenetics we may be drawing closer to seeing such a thing even if science as we know it would refuse to see based on the unyielding and largely or perhaps completely non-disprovable assertion of the primacy of randomness, and the sheer hubris of the assertion of complete absence of non-human purpose in the Universe.

Oh, for the record I have nothing against the theory of evolution, but I do have something against those who, unlike you, defend it zealously as an article of faith without which they would apparently be adrift in the Universe, which, apparently, is simply entirely unacceptable to them. When this discussion becomes one faith-based belief against another I feel the desire to point out that that is what the argument has become, which one side would entirely refuse to accept.

Thanks for listening. Sorry my comment was so long. It just spilled out.

masterymistery said...

Hi Adam,

Thank you very much for taking the time to read the post and respond in such depth and with such considered argument. I greatly appreciate it.

The blogger application has refused to publish my comment on your comment because of its length! So I'm going to have to do this in multiple parts.

This is the FIRST PART. I'll post the remainder in PART 2, below (hopefully!)

You raise many good points. I'm a bit daunted by the prospect of responding -- don't know where to start!

It's not my intention to defend evolution "zealously as an article of faith". But I will say that according to literally 100% of mainstream biologists and life scientists, it is by far the best (if not the only) fully validated explanation/description of the process that has resulted in the wonderfully rich biodiversity we enjoy upon this planet.

The only other contender is creationism / intelligent design, which to be brutally frank is completely woolly headed and totally without evidence or foundation. In some versions the world is said to have been created 4000 years ago. Tell that to the ancient Egyptians! I'm sorry, but I refer to it as "cretinism".

This is an important point, so let me repeat it. The fact is, excluding cretinism, Evolution is the ONLY explanation we have for the development of life on this planet. There literally are no other contenders.

In most fields of study, there are usually multiple explanations and scientists fight among themselves to have their pet theory accepted as fact. Cosmology is a good example. I do believe Big Bang theory to be true, but there are other valid theories to explain the development of the universe.

However, where biology is concerned, there literally are no theories -- zip, zero, nada -- other than evolution. If you find one, please let me know.

There is no more solid consensus among scientists and academics about the reliability of any scientific theory than there is about the theory of evolution. And very few if any scientific theories are better supported by solid evidence than evolution.

Re evidence, I refer not only to the extensive fossil record, but also to the mountains of research into the genetics of extant species and their ancestor species. We know, for instance, the exact percentage of the respective genomes shared by humans and other simians (a lot, but I'm too lazy to look up the exact number. It's more than 90%).

There have been many experiments performed on very short-lived creatures that have enabled scientists to actually observe the process of evolution in action, as it occurs:

Wikipedia: "Evolution may be observed in the laboratory as populations adapt to new environmental conditions and/or change by such stochastic processes as random genetic drift. With modern molecular tools, it is possible to pinpoint the mutations that selection acts upon, what brought about the adaptations, and to find out how exactly these mutations work. Because of the large number of generations required for adaptation to occur, evolution experiments are typically carried out with microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast or viruses, or other organisms with rapid generation times."

There are some differences of opinion among biologists about some aspects of some details of evolution (google "punctuated equilibria", for example) but the theory as a whole is accepted as beyond doubt.

And let me hasten to add that even if Evolution were shown to be "untrue" I would not feel "adrift in the universe". I'm not in love with the theory, but I do believe it to be true. And I think the sheer magnificent brilliance of an outrageously simple mechanism that can deliver so much diversity and change reflects very well upon the Creator I hold dear in my pantheist spirituality.

So, having started my response by examining the last paragraph of your post, let me now go back to the top, to your first paragraph, and take it from there!


masterymistery said...

THIS IS PART 2 of my comment on your comment.

Needless to say, you should read PART 1 first!


I'm not sure I understand your first point correctly. Evolution does not see humans as a special species qualitatively different from others. Evolution absolutely categorises humans as a species of animal, not higher or lower than any other.

Features such as culture, language, tool-making, maths etc are seen as simply evolutionary adaptations that have enabled humans to occupy their own niche in the Kingdom of Life. Other species have their own special adaptations. But no evolutionist believes that humans are fundamentally "better" or qualitatively different than any other species.

Termites build cities. Dolphins have language. Ants communicate via the language of scent trails. Monkeys have a great sense of humour. Dogs have a capacity for unconditional love that is greater than it is among humans. None of this is inimical to Evolution.

Re your second point, Evolution holds that there are distinct species, AND that there are transitory phases in the development of species. Tigers and lions can and do mate, and produce offspring, and the offspring is usually infertile. Horses and donkeys can and do mate, and produce offspring (mules), which are infertile. These example indicate the existence of common ancestors among what are today different species.

The fact that some people may find this frightening or uncomfortable does not invalidate the concept. Many people found the bacterial theory of disease to be ridiculous, if not frightening. All those tiny little invisible (to the naked eye) animicules occupying our physical bodies -- Ridiculous!

RE your third point, natural selection by purposeless random mutation is not baseless or unprovable, but in fact has been observed many times by many different people. Not only observed, but actually produced by scientists in the laboratory.

See above comments about laboratory experiments with short-lived species. And then there's the absolutely solidly established field of genetics, which goes hand in hand with evolution.

I don't understand how evolution translates into "... absence of non-human purpose". (But even if that were true, how would that render evolution invalid? Perhaps it really is that way? I don't think there is an absence of non human purpose in the universe, and that sits comfortably with my belief in the truth of evolution.)

The fact that richness and diversity is generated efficiently and economically by an incredibly simple mechanism, to me speaks volumes about the purposeful frugality and thriftiness of the Creator.

Evolution is absolutely NOT a faith-based belief system. Every single aspect of it, including random genetic mutation, has been observed by many people many times. Every aspect of evolution is supported by mountains of data, all of which has been thoroughly tested and peer-reviewed over literally decades of hard-boiled research to within an inch of its life!

I don't feel any conflict between evolution and my robust and deep pantheist spirituality. I believe that the whole of Reality -- past, present and future -- is an actual living organism who is growing, learning and developing just as any other living thing. I refer to that entity as "The Biggest Person There Is". And the fact that Ze has implemented a self-sustaining mechanism that produces an ever-increasing Universal richness and diversity is a wonder in itself.

Yes, Richard Dawkins is an arrogant p...k with a condescending patronising style that turns many people off, myself included. But the qualities of a person espousing a set of beliefs have no connection to the validity of those beliefs.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

With love,


Adam Stephens said...

Okay. I apologize that I won't make this easy.

The first mistake I think you're making, which is wholly understandable, is assuming that my comment is a counter to your post in support of evolution. It is not and was not meant to be.

But first I'd like to point out what that mistake looked like. You immediately laid out the same arguments that everyone else does, often at inappropriate times, which have already been set up and prepared for you. I have done this, too. But notice that no part of it involves curiosity. You argued against points you admitted you didn't understand. I have done this, too. I understand. I just think it's interesting. It's worth considering.

Now, back to my comment and my purpose. At the very beginning I say, "...it seems to me the biggest problem people have with the idea of having evolved ..." Nowhere in this paragraph are any of the arguments against evolution mine. They are my observations of those arguments and interpretations of them. I am, here, entertaining thoughts without accepting them. I do think this is a useful skill. You also, in comment part 2, say you do not understand my first point correctly because evolution does not see humans as a special species qualitatively different from others. That's correct. That is the beauty of evolution, yet those people whose ideas I am entertaining without accepting find dissolving the boundaries of thousands of years of human thought which holds humans separate from the rest of the material world is difficult. The ancient ways of thinking hold firm even now and may continue for some time yet.

These people aren't just confused about the science; that has no place here, as we can see given their persistence. They do not care about the science. They care about more fundamental things very, very few of them can properly articulate, but which ultimately boil down to fundamental differences of world-view, for example a world-view in which the methods of science are useful as opposed to a world-view in which the methods of science are laughably absurd, or not even worth glancing at. I have explained this because I felt it was topical to your post, which began with the question, "Why is it that of all the scientific theories..."

Again in the next paragraph I do not state that the argument is my own, which I made even clearer later when I said, "Oh, for the record I have nothing against the theory of evolution". Regardless, on this point I made, I do not state that it is even a valid scientific argument against the theory of evolution. Again, it is an answer to your opening question, and, again, it has absolutely nothing to do with the science, but with world-view. But I'll defend the claim that lines between species blur to the point of essentially ceasing to exist at all. It is a longstanding problem in the field of biology how to classify species and the problem doesn't get any easier as we learn more about the biological world. The reason is that the concept "species" is entirely artificial. It is a human form of measurement and has nothing to do with the organisms themselves but with how we measure them. This statement is not very controversial among biologists; they know this very well.

Adam Stephens said...

The third problem I called more reasonable, and there I claim some part of it. In fact, I claim all of it. It can be shortened to two points:

First, the very notion of randomness is an inherently unprovable assumption, unprovable even in principle. Randomness is an artifact of our ways of measuring the world and so is a statement about our own perceptions, not about what it is that we are observing. This is not an argument about the science, but about an assumption used extensively throughout science.

Second, the assertion of the complete absence of non-human purpose in the Universe is deeply embedded in the scientific project as we know it and is completely baseless. Human activity could well be satisfactorily described in "objective" mathematical scientific terms and leave out the notion of purpose altogether. By purpose I mean quite a lot of things, but I'll keep this brief and hope you pick up on those other things, however, purpose is relevant here. It may well be that the whole Universe behaves purposefully, or only certain parts of it. It may well be that the biosphere of the Earth as a whole behaves with purpose, desire, intention, feeling, and so on as a diffuse but very real conscious mega-organism. It may also be that every electron behaves with purpose, which we then call random and explainable mysteriously only by an application of the concept of probability.

I have nothing against the theory of evolution and would be tempted to defend it just like you, even zealously, even as an article of faith, but without that last part also -- I had in my comment, I thought, excluded you from the appearance of this emotional response. I have done this before and the reflex is still here, and that is precisely the reason I have such issue with those who crusade in its favor -- I know it intimately. Militants are not thinking about what they are defending but waving about a list of arguments which must, in their own minds, never, ever be questioned. Thus we have claims such as, "There literally are no other contenders." I've said this one many, many times and will probably unwisely say it again in the right situation, but it is not a useful argument. Who cares that there are no other contenders? Who cares that all scientists seem to agree on this general idea? It just isn't relevant when someone is questioning Science itself as a belief system or method, which should not be seen as heretical or blasphemous, yet is. Absolutely it is. Don't dare do it in the wrong place and at the wrong time. You will regret it. As these militants are concerned, to include the likes of guys as friendly as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science simply isn't open to criticism, and simply must not be questioned. Evolution is not a faith-based belief system. The current formulation of the theory of evolution is formed out of a faith-based belief system.

I need to conclude somewhere, so I will here. I believe the current form that the theory of evolution takes has room to grow if fertilized from outside the confines of the restrictive assumptions, assertions, and dogmas from within science, which have no real purpose for science, and I believe that when we do that, the great vision of the biological world and the Universe in general will be ever more beautiful, far more so than we can imagine. The same, I feel, is true in other areas.

Also, maybe, I am sorry for my confusing attempt to interpret opposition to our the theory of evolution, which we both support very strongly, even enthusiastically.

mgeorge said...

Hi MM,

"... where biology is concerned, there literally are no theories... other than evolution"
The various dogmas and traditional beliefs are theories, though not scientific. One pundit opined that evolution cannot qualify as a scientific theory because it is too universal. That seems to be a cop-out because biologists confine themselves to biology.

As for Newton's physics, he would have suffered the same fate as Galileo in a different place and time.

There is also the hypothesis of morphic resonance: that past events and forms facilitate their recurrence in some unknown way [Rupert Sheldrake] (a) independently in more than one place around the same time (b) more frequently or readily over time. E.g. (a) synthesis of new compounds (b) biological ontogeny and mitosis (c) convergent (parallel) bio-evolution in form or behaviour between two diverse taxonomic groups, and even between plants and animals.

Evolution is just the result of cumulative change [Dawkins]. That leads to deviance, dissent, etc. Even chemical elements have deviants called isotopes. We also see evolution in the cosmos, geology and culture. The conservative mind abhors shades of grey, compromise and revision. Perhaps this is a neurological issue. Another motive is wanting to be Exceptional: above not just social but natural laws, with special access to some escape clause. This seems to underlie Kapitalism, craze for power and climate-change denial.

"... There's no direction, no start point..."
IMO, there is a trend to greater specialisation and complexity. This also leads to dead ends [Bertrand Russell].



masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge,

Great to hear from you. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

In this day and age you can't even persuade people with a good argument, let alone a bad one: Aside from the "dumbing down" process accelerating as we speak, the rabid, fanatical anti-scientism saturating all aspects of human culture means the battle is lost before it is even begun!



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