Posted Dec 5, 2007
Last Updated Mar 5, 2009
First of all a caveat: I am not a scholar on this subject, but I've been interested in it for 60 years, reading, digesting, ruminating on it from time to time, but not taking notes. Also I'm writing this piece off the cuff. It was not given to me on plates of stone atop Mt. Sinai.
Today, mentioning evolution tends to incite counter-claims for creationism or intelligent design as an alternative and opposing explanation of "things as they are." So I considered calling this "Evolution and Alternative Theories," or something like that. But I settled for brevity, at least in the title.
A relevant aside: I'm honest enough to know I don't have the ultimate operational truth about much of anything. On the other hand I don't think you do either. At best we're ensouled primates, restricted in our potential knowingness. (We try.) And while some may regard me as a heathen, I have read much of the Bible. (Mine has a thicket of page tabs sticking out.) Particularly meaningful to me have been the book of Ecclesiastes (ah vanity!), and Chapter 13, of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. The whole of Chapter 13 touts love as the supreme attribute, and verse 5 tells us that love "does not insist on its own way."
Ha! How much trouble (and drama) that would save!
Meanwhile, on to the subject. In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, which analyzed a whole stack of detailed biological observations, and concluded that biological species evolved through long periods of gradual changes from earlier forms. And by inference, this was extended to mean that, step by step, man evolved from (earlier) apes. That really got the attention of Christian fundamentalists, who've been beating up on him ever since, because that is NOT what it says in The Book of Genesis.
Nearly 15 decades have rolled past since Origin was first published, and an intricate and coherent structure of relevant scientific observations, along with the conclusions drawn from them, has been compiled, not just from biology, but also from biochemistry, geology, peat cores, ice cores, sediment cores, carbon and potassium radio-dating, paleoanthropology, comparative DNA analysis, etc, all built on a foundation of basic physics as it is presently understood. Actually it's an integrated part of a much larger structure, science as a whole: observations and analytical results that have been sorted, tested, cross-tested and argued about, inspiring layers of further research to prove or disprove what was made of its parts — and of the overall structure. A strongly integrated structure of knowledge and understanding, with occasional (and inevitable) loose ends, ambiguities, and anomalies. Which inspire further research, which constantly results in tinkering and sometimes in substantial revision. (In his time, Charlie Darwin would hardly have imagined such a volume of research and discovery, but if he knew now, he'd be delighted.)
All in all, the...let's call it the scientific doctrine we refer to as Neo-Darwinism, holds up pretty well. (Over all those years of research and thought, it's changed, of course..) In fact, Neo-Darwinism is analogous to the understanding Newtonian physics had attained 120 years ago. And we know what happened to it: beginning about 1900, a series of new discoveries were made, and the universe came to look very different, though Newton's old equations still work admirably for many applications. In fact, since 1900, the universe has come to be perceived far more fully than before, and various old difficulties have been resolved. (A lot of pertinent information had been lacking when Newton wrote.)
Nor have the changes stopped, or even slowed.
Influenced by Lyell's theory of geological gradualism, Darwin visualized biological evolution as gradual, and beyond the perceived role of selection, didn't — wasn't able to — get into the hows. Mendel's research on heredity would be published in 1866, while Darwin was still alive, but Mendel was ahead of his time, and nothing came of his work until the 20th century, when the breakthrough research of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students, on chromosomes and genes, spawned a flood of research, and a new surge (may I use the word?) of genetic understanding. To be followed, over the decades, by the electron microscope, Watson and Crick's discovery of the stucture of DNA, a theory of how it works, and Dawkins' concept of memes, which together opened whole new dimensions in evolution.
But it all began with an adventurous, 22-year-old English physican/geologist/naturalist departing on a slow, world-circling voyage of exploration in December 1831. On a wind-driven ship. Meanwhile, the people who condemn Darwin seem not to have a clue of what a delight the results are.
Part of their difficulty with the theory of evolution seems to lie in correlating evolution with their concept of God, and by extension, with some of the ideological baggage attached to that concept. With The Book of Genesis in particular, and the relatively short length of time it implies since Creation. Even some scientifically literate evangelicals don't accept a time line of biological evolution extending back a billion-plus years. (But neither do most of them claim that creation began on the evening preceding October 23, 4004 BC, as reckoned from painstaking biblical studies by Bishop Ussher, and published in 1650 AD.)
Nonetheless, some, uncomfortable with the situation, would like to shorten the perceived elapsed time since the universe and humans were created. Shorten it to something far less than the supposed 3.9 billion years since the first life we have respectable evidence for, or even the roughly 370 million years since early amphibians left the swamps to spend part of their life cycle on land. Let alone the 13.5 billion years since the supposed Big Bang, which may yet prove bogus, but meanwhile helps support objective, and structurally coherent and consistent explanations for many diverse phenomena.
About which more later.
One approach to shrinking the time line is an appeal to, and manipulation of, the doctrine of punctuated equilibrium. My own take on punctuated equilibrium derives in part from geological gradualism and catastrophism. Gradualism, in biological evolution, refers to gradual heritable changes due to gene mutations and distribution, biological interactions, and selection by the environment. In a fairly stable environment, evolution was/is thought to be gradual. Catastrophism refers to large, relatively brief events, — split seconds in the case of, say, an impact by a comet or large asteroid. Thus the Cretaceous-Tertiary event, 65 million years ago, was an instantaneous impact, or more likely a series of impacts within a few days, with an after-train of almost inconceivable shock waves — atmospheric, oceanic, and tectonic — with tsunamis, earthquakes, a rain of incandescent rocks, vulcanism, widespread fires, and a series of dark cold years. Together they wiped out an estimated 75% of the biological species on Earth, including all the dinosaurs. Other, similar events have left their mark on our planet, fortunately millions of years apart.
More slowly paced was the melting of the last continental glaciers (an event taking not days, but several thousand years), with its accompaniment of meltwater lakes that dwarf our present Great Lakes, and the release of great floods, as melting and erosion opened new drainage ways. A particularly cataclysmic series of such floods scoured the Columbia River and associated lands with melt water from Glacial Lake Missoula, deepening gorges, and scouring the soil off large areas.
Elsewhere the drainage of such lakes exposed vast areas of lake beds, making them available to animals and plants that had survived the long cold and the subsequent warming. New migration routes were opened by the fragmenting and melting of the stagnating ice. Other, older routes — the Bering land bridge that joined Siberia and Alaska, for example — were drowned, cut off as ocean levels rose.
In a period of a few thousand years, the enormous woolly mammoth disappeared from the Earth, along with the giant Bison latifrons, the cave lion, cave bear, short-faced bear... The last known mammoth (a miniature form!) just 3,700 years ago, left its bones on Wrangell Island off the Siberian coast.
In South America, the Amazon Basin, far from the continental glaciers, had for millennia been dominated not by rainforest and marshes, but by savanna — grasslands with more or less scattered trees, and woods long the numerous rivers. Presumably due to regional climates differing from today's because of different ocean currents, resulting from the glaciers, colder planetary climates, and the resulting continental drainage patterns in higher latitudes. All this changed with the shrinkage and disappearance of the mile-thick (!) glaciers. In a period of a few thousand years, the Amazon basin, a vast, ecologically new stage, developed its luxuriant rainforests from burgeoning parent stocks on the east slope of the Andes and riverine woodlands.
All of which can be explained seamlessly by observable processes, and without stretching logic. Though one might hope for some surprises — new understandings and processes — to grow out of it all.
Meanwhile neo-Darwinism — Darwinism as it is now understood — paints a picture of train wrecks on the railroad of gradualism, creating opportunities — and demands! — for previously marginal or suppressed life forms to occupy vacated and perhaps seriously altered environments. The gradual is always ongoing, but from time to time it is swamped and re-energized by cataclysm.
At least that's what I make of it.
So. Are we done now?
Not yet, kemo sabe. That's simply a broad sketch of Neo-Darwinism, a broad one, and there's a whole 'nother side to the controversy. Now I'll look at the possibility that shrinking the time line to accommodate Judaeo-Christian theology is altering the wrong side of the equation. And that theology might better be adjusted to accommodate the scientific consensus. Let's begin by considering Genesis. What makes Genesis the rule for measuring acceptability, let alone truth? The fundamentalist reply is that Genesis, the entire Bible in fact, is the literal word of God. The reply to that, of course, is "who says so?" And the response to that is apt to be "you're an atheist! At your age, you'd better discover Jesus in a hurry, or you'll spend eternity in Hell!"
I'll take that risk, because I don't believe it is a risk. For one thing it's not compatible with the concept of a loving god. Sounds more like a tribal priest trying to get everyone on the same page before the Assyrians arrive. Or maybe a priestly effort to raise a passel of idol worshipers a notch up on the scale of civilization by scaring hell out of them — or enough of them to coerce the rest.
And as for being an atheist — if an atheist is someone who denies the existence of God, or the idea that there is only one god and he is the God of the Bible — then the term might be said to fit me. (In fact it fits a whole lot of Christian churchgoers too.) But suppose I recognize a "god" who doesn't match that definition? A god who, say, loves us as we are?!! But I won't wear you out with that. I'll simply point out that historians generally class Washington, Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams — three of our first six presidents — plus Benjamin Franklin, as deists. Whose belief amounted to "god created the world, and then essentially ignored it." Or maybe left it to see what would happen.
That certainly isn't the god of the literally interpreted Bible.
And next — do you suppose? — could it be? — that there actually is a "creative principle" embodied in the universe, and the Bible has seriously misrepresented him? And maybe even that that creative principle adjusts its operating mode according to the situation? Or even that its "logic" is beyond our comprehension? Or...
In the early years of the United States, there was no TV or radio, or video games or stock market reports or websites or bowling leagues, so the founding fathers tended to keep diaries. And exchange long, sometimes philosophical letters — logs without a web on which to post them — diaries many of which survived to provide generations of historians with an understanding of their viewpoints.
None of which proves anything with regard to evolution, but it does tend to undercut fundamentalism. Deism indeed!
At this point I'll drop my critique of Genesis as the literal word of God. I'm truly not trying to convert, or subvert, any dedicated evangelical, just airing the bedsheets and laying out some thoughts for your examination.
Now on to evangelical efforts to shrink the timeline of our planet. I've seen a video tape that uses geological catastrophism in an effort to drastically compress the "history" of geological events into a hypothetical time frame more friendly to someone's version of "creationism." Unfortunately I can't be specific about it, or name the author, because I cannot find the tape. I've moved twice since then, and it may have gotten put out for yard sale, so I'm relying on memory. Perhaps someone who reads this can identify it for me.
The author-narrator of the tape started with the (currently) orthodox geological canon, and selected details presenting what he deemed points susceptible to reinterpretation, to discredit the existing interpretation. He then proceeded to find observations and analyses which suggested (to him) that things were indeed different than supposed, and came up with alternative explanations, some of which seemed to me worth looking at, though far from compelling.
Some major advances in science began with similar efforts. But generally, those were inspired by a structure of understanding that had already become shaky. And perhaps more important, without exception, his takes on those points did not, for me, contribute to an integrated structure of knowledge. Instead they seemed to produce a fragment that could not stand alone. Which isn't surprising. His goal seemed to be an alignment of geological understanding with the Old Testament, and they don't fit worth doodily.
The gap between Fundamentalism and the worldview provided by orthodox adjustable science is vast. In our time, the Church of Rome approaches it by simply declaring science as valid, and quibbling only on points of its application in life. And in fact this was formalized during the reign of a conservative pope, John Paul II. For one thing, given the existing evidence, that stance seems practical. Rational. And my impression is, the "liberal" (I think of them as progressive) protestant sects do much the same, but generally without formalizing it. Both arrived at their positions after long years of more or less reluctant adjusting. In fact it seems to me that religion is (what else?) evolving.
Still, many protestant believers have trouble with the concept of man having evolved from apes, and ultimately from single-celled organisms. Yet the physical evidence supports it: A human demonstrably begins with the fertilization of a single cell, an ovum, which then divides, forming two cells, which divide and redivide, after a time producing an organism with gills, and finally a small organism that is forced by muscular contractions into the open air. I'm not sure where, along the time in the womb, it becomes conspicuously different from the anthropoid ("man-like") apes. But the basic features of the process certainly point to kinship. As does the DNA.
It's been suggested that the soul enters the body with the first breath. That makes as much sense as the belief that the soul began with fertilization. Or was the soul in the ovum from the start? Others, I suppose, would prefer to think the soul is in the sperm, but for every sperm cell that wins the race to an ovum, hundreds are also-rans, and die. What happens to their souls?
Christian clergy in general preach faith in God. Might it might be appropriate, then, to have faith that God looks after the details, and accept the world as it is, to the extent they can?
I'm not trying to change anyone's mind with this. Many or most fundamentalists who might have begun reading this, clicked off before getting this far. But other readers may have found it useful. Interesting at least.
Your comments are welcome.