Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Speech to the Creationists

Hello, thank you for having me here today.

I’ve heard it said that one of the ways of classifying people into two groups is between the “educational” and “adversarial” view. In the educational view, someone is less concerned with whose side everybody is on, and more concerned with whether or not everyone understands what the issues are about, and what the facts of the matter are. For the adversarial view, facts and understanding are not so important. If someone is one your side, they don’t need to know the facts, and if they are against you, you don’t want them to know the facts.

That may sound like a loaded distinction, and it may be, given that my own orientation is decidedly educational, but I do admit that there are times when the adversarial view is useful, like during a war, or in a court action. A lawyer doesn’t do well if everyone understands what the case is about but he loses, and a soldier cares even less.

Nevertheless, I’m going to go for the educational view here; I think it’s important for you to understand what the real issues are, what the real facts are, and what I think is important. How you then deal with that information is up to you.

So I want to clear up some misconceptions, and let me also say at the outset that many of these misconceptions are common to both sides of the evolution debate, so I’m not saying “Nyah, nyah, nyah, you’re ignorant and we’re educated.” I am going to be saying that the real issues are not what you think they are, but by the same token, I don’t think that the real issues are what most people think they are.

Take the word “evolution” or the words “theory of evolution.” Most people use those words as shorthand for “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection,” but that’s both oversimplified, and it misses important historical facts, so let me review a few of those.

A couple of hundred years ago, as the science of geology was laying down its foundations, one of the things that kept hitting people who studied rocks and such was how old so many things seemed to be. To take a trivial example, stalactites that grow from the mineral calcite grow very slowly, yet there are caves that have very large such structures. If you look at the current rate for stalactite growth and compare it to those big growths, you wind up with an estimate that it took millions of years for them to grow. There are, incidentally, types of stalactites that grow more quickly; in fact, icicles are a kind of stalactite, and there are others that rapidly grow from gypsum, but no one has ever found or fast growing calcite stalactite, nor has anyone ever demonstrated a way to grow one quickly, because the process seems to be intrinsically slow.

There were a lot of these sorts of things that were found almost as soon as geology became a science, things like sedimentation rates, weathering by water and wind, and so forth. Later we found things like the rate at which the very ground beneath our feet slowly moves, which, over time, creates mountains, buries sediments, and moves the continents around. We also found things like radioisotope dating that corroborated some of the other geological age estimates, and often even extended them, taking our estimates of the ages of the oldest rocks into the billion years range.

Now it should be noted that most of the early geologists were religious, Christians even, but they weren’t what is called Biblical literalists. They didn’t believe each and every word in the Bible was true, and educated men hadn’t really done so since at least the days of St. Thomas Aquinas, who recognized both that the world is round, and that a literal interpretation of the Bible would pretty much require that it be flat. That had been argued by the Egyptian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes based on the Biblical references to the Earth’s four corners, and the fact that there were evenings and mornings on each reported day of creation, when a round world always has a morning and evening somewhere, and “day” depends on where you are on the globe. So the early geologists were willing to say that the “days” of creation couldn’t be literal, and couldn’t be just 24 hours long.

In any case, the Earth looked to be substantially old to the geologists, and they had no particular problem with this, at least not on the grounds of religious doctrine. Furthermore there seemed to be a lot of strange bones in among the rocks.

Now some of those bones were just that, bones. They were found in places like the La Brea tar pits, or ancient peat bogs, or even in the Siberian tundra, where we’ve found completely frozen dead animals tens of thousands of years old. Some of the bones, though, were even older, so old that they’d turned into stone, by what looked to be like a similar process that produces those stalactites, where dripping water slowly replaced the original bone with rock.

But what really got everyone’s interest was that the bones they found didn’t look like the bones of known animals. Some of the critters in the tar pits looked like big cats with huge, I mean, really big, teeth, that came to be called “saber toothed.” Some looked like really small horses. And some of the bones that had turned into stone were so big that the animals could never have fit into Noah’s Ark.

That was one of the theories of the time, as you might expect, that the bones belonged to creatures that had died in the Flood. They had to abandon Biblical literalism for that, though, since the Bible says that God told Noah to get male and females of “every living thing of all flesh,” not “every living thing except the dinosaurs and trilobites.”

Then too, a lot of the fossils that they found were fish, fish that probably wouldn’t have minded the Flood too much. They also kept finding one set of creatures in one rock formation, but if you went deeper, you’d find a much different set of creatures. No one really believed that sedimentation from a single event, be it the Flood or something like it, would also do a big sort on everything so that all the little horses and sabertooths floated to the top, while the trilobites went to the bottom and T. Rex wound up in the middle.

No, the fossils came in groups that were separated by geology, and the geologists figured that that was because they were separated in time. The animals that formed the fossils lived and died at different times, and those that lived at the same time wound up in the same geological formation and those that lived at other times wound up in different formations. Any yes, every now and then two geological formations would get jumbled up, the same way that when you knock all the books off the shelves, they aren’t in alphabetical order any more. But for the most part, they were separated.

Now as I said, different kinds of animals seemed to be in different times, and somebody had to figure out what to make of that. Realize, also, that while all this was happening, Europeans were fanning out across the globe, and periodically they’d stop off on an island, replenish their supplies, accidentally lose a dog, pig, rat or two, and move on. Then, sometimes, they’d come back later to discover that the island had “gone to the dogs,” as it were, and oops, you didn’t have any Dodos anymore. In other words, they discovered that species of animals can go extinct. And it occurred to people that, if species were going extinct, eventually we’d run out of species, unless there was something that replenished them.

A while earlier, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but there were some biologists who’d overturned the idea of “spontaneous generation,” the idea that animals are regularly appearing spontaneously out of mud, or rotting meat, or whatever. Some biologists had looked carefully at the mud and saw the eggs that had been laid there, or they kept the rotting meat in a closed container, and saw that no fly larvae came out when you did that. So biology got this idea that “like creates like” or “like comes from like” and that put them in opposition to the facts that seemed to be coming out of geology, where different things kept appearing.

Thus came the “theory of evolution.” There was no mechanism, just the idea that, somehow, over time, like didn’t produce like, but rather, some organisms, some part of a species, could slowly evolve into something else.

Then came all sorts of “theories of evolution.” Darwin’s mechanism was only one of them. Some believed that evolution occurred by animals “striving” to become better, and that in the striving, some of the things that they acquired, like stretched necks in giraffes, would be passed on to their offspring. There is a theory called “Panspermia” that holds that all evolutionary changes are preprogrammed by a rain of genetic material from space. There were even what could be called “theories of devolution,” which holds that, for the case of human beings at least, the original species was much more advanced than we are, and we are a sort of degenerate version. This is more or less what Disraeli was saying when he said, “Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, am on the side of the angels.” Given that Disraeli couldn’t fly, or work other miracles, he seems to have been at the most something of a devolved angel, don’t you think?

What Darwin suggested was that a plant or an animal that was a bit better suited to its environment than its neighbor would probably have a few more offspring than its neighbor, and that, over time, whatever it was that made it better suited would become more and more prevalent. Then he further went on that, over time, entire species might change, or sub-populations of a species might drift off from the rest of the species and become a new species in its own right. Of course there has been about a hundred and fifty years of thinking, observation, research, and modifications to this, and it’s a big subject, so big that I’m not going to try to go into it here. I will say that the theory of natural selection, as it’s called, is the cornerstone not just of modern evolutionary biology, but also of microbiology, biochemistry, biogenetics, paleontology, and a host of other scientific disciplines. I said earlier that I don’t care that much what side you’re on, and I don’t, but I will say that if you want to have anything to do with any of the related scientific fields, if you don’t know how the theory of natural selection works, you’re out of luck. You might as well try to get a job in a library without knowing how to read.

But there is another thing that I want to say here, and that is about some things that Darwin never said. But it does have Darwin’s name attached, and that, in my view is a tragic misunderstanding. What I’m talking about is what is called “Social Darwinism.”

We’ve all heard the phrase “survival of the fittest” and it’s usually applied to Darwinian natural selection, but in fact, Darwin didn’t invent the phrase, and it was not originally applied to animals, it was applied to corporations in 19th Century Great Britain.

It’s not uncommon to try to apply lessons from on field of learning to another, but it’s often a mistake. When Isaac Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, he created an elegant theory that seemed able to predict the motion of the Moon, Earth, and planets for all time. And some people took this to mean that everything could be predictable, even the affairs of men. So we got what has sometimes been called the “Clockwork Universe,” the idea that everything is predictable. More recently, science has pretty well demolished that idea, both with quantum mechanics and with what is called “chaos theory,” but I imagine that most of you will join me in a little chuckle at the expense of anyone who ever looked at human affairs and failed to see the inherent chaos there.

In any case, the 19th Century had a lot of misunderstandings in it. There had been a theory of economics put forward by a fellow named Adam Smith in the same year as the American Revolution, and he referred to the “invisible hand” of the market. Some people in the 19th Century, and, sadly, even today, mistake this invisible hand of the market for the invisible hand of God, to very bad results. Some of these people were in charge of the policy that had Ireland continue to export grain during the Irish potato famine. That was in the 1840s, and a couple of million people starved to death. No doubt had it been some years later, after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, they would have cited Darwin as well as Adam Smith. But we all know the truth, don’t we? They just hated Irishmen, and the theories were just an excuse to let them starve.

What is called Social Darwinism actually began with the work of a man named Herbert Spencer, who believed that society was a struggle among individuals and that there was a “social evolution” that was equivalent to Darwin’s biological evolution. Actually, the ideas were even older, dating from a fellow by the name of Malthus, who did have some influence on Darwin as well, but the social stuff was all from the 19th century Victorians, who were looking for any excuse to justify their colonial empire. Plenty of people came to believe, because it was so comforting to their view of the world, that social evolution was the same thing as biological evolution, and that a person’s ranking in society reflected their rank in the grand evolutionary scheme of things, or as it was called, “the great chain of being,” another phrase that greatly predates Darwin. In this view, successful people, that is, the rich, the well-educated, the aristocratic were “more fit”, while people who were poor and uneducated were somehow “unfit.”

Well, when you make a mistake this big at the beginning, it just gets worse and worse. Darwinian natural selection talks about offspring, and it’s a general fact that poor and uneducated people have more offspring than do the rich and successful. In Darwinian terms, that would seem to make them “fitter.” Alternately, and this is my view, it says that social standing and wealth are irrelevant to evolution and vice versa.

You might think that this contradiction of the “fitter poor” would bring the idea of Social Darwinism into doubt, but the Social Darwinists weren’t having any of it. The fact that the poor were outbreeding the rich was taken as an indication that we just weren’t being harsh enough to the poor, or that we’d allowed the creation of civilization to get in the way of some biological imperative. The result of that thinking produced what came to be called the Eugenics Movement. In its saner moments, the Eugenics Movement merely advocated policies designed to get the well-educated to have more children. Unfortunately, the moments that weren’t so sane were more numerous, so we had advocates of brutal policies like laws against the “mixing of races”, the sterilization of “genetic inferiors,” various forms of discrimination and strange racial theories, and even outright genocide. We mostly managed to avoid the last one in this country, but the other policies were a matter of law for many decades at the beginning of the 20th Century.

And even now, one of the pitches that is made for the genetic engineering of human beings is that we could somehow “improve” people genetically, without anyone really knowing what that means.

And I mean that. Nobody knows what “genetically inferior” really means, because a person’s genetic makeup interacts with the environment, and what is “fit” for one set of circumstances may well be “unfit” for others. So it’s not something that you can establish from the outset. If aliens came down in spaceships and began to “intelligently design” a human being, the result would depend entirely upon what purpose the aliens had for humans and the environment that the humans were meant for. Frankly, I doubt that aliens would do a very good job of it, at least not from our perspective.

But people who have enjoyed worldly success want that success to be total and intrinsic. It’s often not enough for them to be rich and successful; they want to believe that it’s because of their basic virtue, that they are just plain better than other people. There are, in fact, some religious doctrines that hold worldly success to be the outward manifestation of inner virtue and godly grace. And if some people can enlist their ideas about God to justify themselves, it’s not very hard to imagine that some people, sometimes the same people, think that science will do that as well.

So let me say in conclusion, that, if some magic leprechaun were to give me a single powerful wish that it could be used to eradicate either Creationism or Social Darwinism, I’d get rid of Social Darwinism, because it has caused much greater harm than Creationism in this world. The idea that the day to day struggle for a decent life is part of some grand evolutionary struggle is pernicious at its core, and it does great harm. So if you see your fellow man in some distress, it’s okay to help them out. You don’t have to take every advantage at every step. Kindness is still a virtue; compassion does not harm the human race.

And Darwin is not your enemy, nor is evolution. We all know that we have an animal nature, but it need not define us. Disraeli may not have been an angel, nor are any of us, but it is not a bad thing to consider how you’d expect an angel to act, and maybe aspire to act like one every now and then.


black dog barking said...

Biological darwinism is pretty much a fair game; not so with social darwinism. The social game is structured such that playing by the rules is a sure way to lose. To the cheater, the spoils.

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