a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

why is evolution true? (if it is): part one, the problem of fixity

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some Galapagos finches

some Galapagos finches

Much of my writing, especially about sciency stuff, is an attempt to own the knowledge. It’s perhaps never completely successful, especially for the non-specialist, the dilettante, who tries to own so much and to keep all those possessions together. You read about it, you cast it in your own words, you grasp it, you think you’ve grasped it completely, you move on to other things, and six months later you’re asked a curly question and in trying to answer it you find you’ve forgotten the half of it, and you wonder – did I ever really understand it after all?

So. We have the theory of evolution, or natural selection from random variation, and we have the theories of special and general relativity and quantum theory and so forth. And we have those in science who tell us that ‘theory’ is a technical term constantly misunderstood by the general public and deliberately misconstrued by those with particular agendas. And we have general talk and a lot of general ignorance about evolution.

Several years ago, when I was starting out as a teacher of ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) I observed a small community centre English class. The elderly teacher was asked by a well-dressed middle-aged African man, did she really think evolution – that we were descended from monkeys – was true? It was a polite, puzzled question. The teacher, understandably not wanting to dive down that rabbit hole, replied, ‘well, you know, it’s just a theory’, and the subject was changed. It unsettled me, to put mildly. It’s not how I would’ve dealt with the matter, and in fact I’ve twice since been placed in that position in recent times, and I’ve responded with ‘oh yes, it’s true, the evidence is in and it’s overwhelming,’ or words to that effect. Bam bam, take that and let’s back to grammar.

But of course, that response, too, is unsettling. After all, I could’ve given the exact same response to the question ‘Does God exist?’. It was just saying, an argument from my own authority.

Of course I had back-up from years of science and evolution-reading, but still I felt I was just imposing my authority as a teacher. I half-hoped for and half-dreaded being asked to elaborate.

The other night, at an atheist meet-up, the group was ‘invaded’ by three or four young street-preachers, self-confessed fundies who were apparently keen to debate evolution (they didn’t believe in it) and cosmology (the universe can’t create itself, ergo god). I didn’t engage with them myself, as I’m still recovering from a chest infection and want to avoid stress, but things got very heated over in their corner and I’ve since received an email asking for help to convince one of them of the evidence for evolution. It may be that the young man’s ignorance is wilful, but maybe not, and in any case it provides me with a useful opportunity to answer as best I can the title question.

Questions were raised about the fixity of species well before Charles Darwin was born. The most important figures in this early questioning of orthodoxy came from France. One of the founders of naturalism, Buffon, speculated that the earth might be much older than the standard biblical 6000 years, and that change, both geological and organic, might be endemic and constant. He mostly kept his views to himself, as the idea that the earth was maybe more than ten times older than the accepted figure was incendiary for the time. Lamarck, however, was the first to really go public with a theory of evolution. His essential view was that creatures adapted to their environment over time through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although he was generally incorrect as to his mechanism there is still some interest in his ideas today, but above all Lamarck strongly influenced future thinking on the subject as he was a first-rate scientist.

It should be noted though that all this speculation was brought on by the problems posed by evidence. The biblical fixity of species account was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the discoveries of fossils of creatures not to be found anywhere, yet apparently related to current species. And then there were the fossils of ‘giants’, which had been discovered here and there for centuries, but which were not described scientifically until the nineteenth century. How could all these remains of  ‘disappeared’ creatures be turning up in a world where creation was fixed? The most popular explanation was ‘catastrophism’, a view held by Cuvier, a younger contemporary of Lamarck and one of his strongest critics. It was an attempt to reconcile fixity with a conveniently biblical diluvian view, but it continued to move thinking in a scientific, evidence-based direction.

Meanwhile, however, other fields of research, such as geology, were also becoming increasingly scientific, especially in Britain, with the work of Hutton and Lyell. Through inference from present conditions, they developed a gradualist, uniformitarian theory of physical change, with a more open-ended view of the earth’s age. This was the scientific background to Darwin’s naturalism. His own grandfather, Erasmus, dabbled in evolutionary ideas, and proposed that the earth had existed for ‘millions of ages’.

Now I know there’s a view out there among fundamentalists called ‘young earth creationism’, but I don’t know much about it. It would seem to be an absolutely crackpot notion, a denial of modern geology, astronomy and cosmology as well as biology and palaeontology, and I presume people who think this way consider the whole of modern science a massive conspiracy theory. How could they not? Yet the young man mentioned above has suggested we go and see a lecture by John Hartnett, an Adelaide University Associate Professor of Physics who’s also a young earth creationist. How could this be? Well I know something of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, but still I can barely imagine what he would say to justify his worldview, and I’m not really interested in trying to rebut his specific arguments, if he has them. These people tend to have martyr complexes about their positions, and I suspect they’d be happy to spend hours trying to bamboozle you. The main thing is to be clear about your own understanding of the evidence.

However, I also have an interest in the psychology of belief. Take the case of Hartnett, which I can only speculate about, but this is an obviously intelligent person who has apparently written scientific papers on dark matter and other aspects of cosmology and astrophysics. He knows, surely, how vast the universe is, that the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbour, is a barely-conceivable 2.5 million light years away, and there are billions of them beyond that, and yet he manages to square this with a six-day creation 6,000 years ago because it was written down by someone and collected much later with a whole mess of other writings by other people, compiled into a book and pronounced ‘holy’. Surely such thinking is more of a mystery than the gods themselves?

I can only speculate again, but Hartnett’s middle name is Gideon, a name inevitably associated with bible-bashing. Can it be that a person gets locked in, from earliest childhood, to a religious schema that they would never think to escape from, no matter how intelligent they are? Can cultural-familial influences have such a vice-like grip? Apparently so, but it’s unusual for someone to be regularly crossing the boundary between a rigid and dogmatic religious belief system and a highly speculative, often free-wheeling but rational and profoundly naturalist enterprise in the way that Hartnett must do. Ain’t people fascinating?

I’ve just read an article about rapid speciation among cichlid fishes in the African lakes. The authors note that this speciation, involving some 500 new species in Lake Victoria, has taken place over less than 15,000 years, unlike the famous speciation among ‘Darwin’s’ finches in the Galapagos (14 species, several million years). It’s called adaptive radiation, where ‘one lineage spawns numerous species that evolve specialisations to an array of ecological niches’, to quote Axel Meyer, writing in the April 2015 edition of Scientific American.

Yet this rapid speciation is still too much for young earth creationists, who believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. What they make of stromatolites is anyone’s guess. Note that the term ‘earth’ is central, and presumably the universe or multiverse is of little concern to them, existing perhaps only as a fireworks show for our delectation.

As an Australian, this is all good for a laugh – though some Australians, such as John Hartnett, are full-on believers of a six-day creation a few thousand years ago – but apparently in the USA a substantial proportion of their very large population actually believes this (though to be honest, I can’t bring myself to believe the survey figures).

So, I wonder how I would deal with these young-turk young earth creationists who come to our atheist meet-ups spoiling for an argument. My hope is that I would have the wherewithal to ask these questions.

Is it your hope to convert the whole world to your view?

If you were successful, wouldn’t science classes be a lot shorter?

What would you do with those who insisted on being heretical? Preaching that the universe has existed for 13 billion years? Would you have them liquidated, or just permanently incarcerated? How about public recantations?

How come your god allowed us to be led astray by the evidence into getting it so wrong?

What would science be like if young earth creationists controlled all the levers of power? What would scientists do?

Of course I’m yet to hear what young earth creationists, many of whom are apparently highly intelligent, have to say about star formation, black holes and the big bang. They may well have the talent to bamboozle me with ingenious arguments. In the end, though, the best argument is to just keep doing the science, following the evidence. As long as we’re still allowed to.

Meanwhile, I haven’t yet answered the question – why is evolution (or more specifically, natural selection of random variation) true? But before I answer that, I believe that creationists do accept evolution of a particular kind, and distinguish between ‘micro-evolution’ and ‘micro-evolution’. I’ll pay some attention to that – but perhaps not too much – in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2015 at 6:56 am

13 Responses

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  1. Micro-evolution is observed in the different beaks of birds.
    Macroevolution would be observable in cross species or transitional species. Of the 14 species, none is transitioning. No new species are in process. No fossil records show it has ever happened. Macroevolution is not supported by hard, observation science.

    • Thanks for your comment. As far as I’m aware the distinction between micro-evolution and macro-evolution is not used by evolutionary biologists. It’s a term used by creationists, for their own purposes, whatever they may be. I’ll be exploring this further in another post. As for creationism, it posits creation of life by a supernatural entity or entities. There are of course thousands upon thousands upon thousands of supernatural entities that people have believed in – all-powerful ones, locally powerful ones, seasonal ones, good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones, solitary ones and whole families of them, but they all have one thing fascinatingly in common, they’re all completely invisible and completely undetectable by human means, no evidence for any single one of them has ever been found. Whatever the mechanisms of the endlessly changing and endlessly various life forms on earth, to argue that any of them were created by a supernatural entity has nothing to do with science. To me, such a claim is simply meaningless.

      stewart henderson

      June 8, 2015 at 9:30 am

      • God created the laws of the universe but He lives outside, above, and is not subject to those laws. We are. Therefore we have no natural means whereby to test or measure God. But we have overwhelming evidences for an intelligent Creator.

      • Thanks, but you’re making claims that you can’t possibly verify. You can say anything you like about what’s above, outside or beyond everything that we know, or can possibly know. That’s why it’s meaningless. Thanks for proving my point. Now I think you should go they merry ways, and take your wee god with you.

        stewart henderson

        June 8, 2015 at 12:07 pm

      • DNA and the fine tuning of the universe are as scientific as any science can get. Natural science cannot explain this information richly textured universe above or within each of us. Time plus matter plus chance becomes a ridiculous explanation when measured against such complexity in a mere 14 billion years. The universe and DNA complexity connot be explained by Dawkins, Harris or any other scientist. They won’t deny it but they won’t comment on it either. God becomes the most plausible reason we are here.

      • That’s a lot of god of the gaps argumentation.

        If there is such a thing as a prime mover or a universe generator, so far, I know of no way of discerning what its characteristics would be (e.g. is it sentient, does it care about other creatures), and you’ve certainly not even approached demonstrating any of them. We may have no way of knowing.

        Just because there are things we don’t know about the origins of life and the universe, doesn’t make your guesses correct – nor those of ancient imaginative people who wrote their guesses down.


        June 9, 2015 at 11:05 am

      • I see you follow Hitch and Dawkins. Dawkins will not respond to fine tuning of the universe or the the issue of DNA being Information with Order on a grand scale. I’ve written much about these.
        “Science Confirms Christian Claims”. ” Francis Collins DNA is the Language God Used to Create Mankind” and about a dozen more. Even how the Big Bang confirms the Biblical account that God created the universe. Before this discovery science believed as Aristotle claimed, that the universe always existed. Feel free to check them out. Quotes from our greatest scientific community past and present, skeptic and Christian, that the universe portrays intelligent and intentional design.

      • I see you follow Hitch and Dawkins.

        I don’t follow anyone in the same sense that you think you follow a god. Also, your attempt at attribution is mistaken. If you’re going to address my points, then address my points.

        Claims of “fine tuning” don’t prove Yahweh or Jesus as existing or divine.

        Also, the big bang doesn’t even approach alignment with the Genesis narrative.


        June 10, 2015 at 3:51 am

      • Frankly I don’t see what upset you though.

      • 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
        (Gen 1:1 NKJV)

        The Big Bang aligns perfectly with scripture from chapter 1 verse 1.

      • If you don’t know anyone like me I take that as a blessing and a compliment. Whether intended or not. Narrow is the path and few find it.

      • “If the universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in.” –Robert Jastrow, agnostic astronomer, author of God and the Astronomers, former head of Goddard Space Center at NASA

  2. Given the near-infinite parameters of our current universe, not to mention the multiverse that a probable majority of cosmologists consider to exist, it’s virtually certain that other life forms, including highly complex life forms, exist within it.
    As to the complexity of life in our little corner, we’re doing a good job of explaining it, but we’ve barely begun. To suggest that a supernatural entity ‘did it’ is no explanation at all, as a supernatural entity can be anything you want it to be. You made it up, you can define it. It’s way outside the realm of science and evidence, and it’s no explanation at all, it’s just pure fantasy. All the instantiations of supernatural entities, from Amun-Ra to the god called God, are human, all too human, it seems to me.

    stewart henderson

    June 8, 2015 at 1:10 pm

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