Charles Darwin at Two-Hundred

12 February 2009

I've decided to say a few things about Darwin Day.

Yes, on this date in 1809 Charles Darwin, the noted naturalist who popularized the theory of evolution, was born. That makes today his 200th birthday. It's also Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP. In other words, an important day all around!

Instead of waxing poetic praise and admiration for Charles Darwin as one might expect, I'm going to instead raise a toast to his greatest legacy: that brilliant theory of our collective origins. In doing so I'll break it up into the most common issues that I think hang up opponents of evolution.

The Deification of Darwin.
The creation-minded crowds seem to think that the evolution-minded folks must regard Darwin as a sort of holy father figure. The Great Darwin, Saint Darwin, Darwin the Fabulous. This is absolutely ridiculous. The entire point of a secularist theory of human origins is that there is no great father figure. Darwin is just a man, no better or worse than any of us. He simply was able to think of an alternate viewpoint because he had the unique opportunity to go globe-trotting to see the bizarre range of animals that inhabit the Earth. Up to that point, few people had visited the Galapagos and other far-flung islands with the intent of categorizing the lifeforms contained on them. In doing so the twenty-two year old Darwin was able to see the variety of evolutionary developments within members of the same species from one island to the next and, with ideas planted in his head by similar thinkers (Alfred Russel Wallace in particular), the young naturalist embraced a brand new theory that shattered the "established" Judeo-Christian doctrines of Creation, as outlined in Genesis.

Darwin's expedition on HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 was a lucky break. Still, he was not the first to propose evolution. Nor did the science end there. Darwin, just like the scientific understanding the preceded and followed his field trip and publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, is but a single step in the bigger picture and, as a matter of course, much of Darwin's own understanding has been overruled by 150 years of subsequent scientific progress. As such, there's all the reason to acknowledge Darwin's achievements and note the beginnings of evolutionary theory, but to hold him up as a singular, shining beacon of reverence is a silly thing. Secularists, unlike theologians, have little need for an awe-inspiring, centralized figure to serve as a Father-Creator. In fact, that's precisely the thinking we wish to dispel. Darwin was just a guy who popularized something far bigger than himself. That's all there is to say.

Which is precisely why the rest of this Darwin Day entry will not really be about Darwin in particular.

The Not-Holy Book.
On the Origin of Species. Published 1859. Should evolution supporters consider this volume in the same league as the Bible, or the Torah, the Qur'an, or the Bhagavad Gita? Absolutely, without question, undoubtedly, of course not! That too would be silly. For all its historical importance, On the Origin of Species should be viewed as a springboard for future works. This is critical due to the necessities of science, where persistent experiments and the furthering of knowledge continually builds upon what has been known before.

Recent media, even including the usually Darwin-friendly New Scientist (et tu?) have jumped on an overly sensationalist bandwagon with covers such as "Darwin Was Wrong!" This is woefully short-sighted on their behalf, both in their failures to take into account the passage of 150 years and the inevitable joy that Creationists will gain from this apparent repentance (without their having read the article).

The reason On the Origin of Species cannot still be considered the best text for all things evolutionary is because science has progressed beyond it. New Scientist, their poor turn of phrase aside, is correct in addressing that Darwin didn't get everything right. This, of course, should be no slight against evolutionary theory, but rather a basic sense of rational logic. In 1859, when Darwin penned his volume, the state of scientific thought was very much different than it was today. The word "dinosaur" had only entered the lexicon seventeen years prior, there was no knowledge of chromosomes, and the majority of the right-and-proper Victorian world believed that races were so clearly defined as to make an Englishman more human than an Italian based on simple geography. The ideas were there, with a good deal of science to back them up, but there remained holes. These holes, during the fifteen intervening decades, have since been mostly filled. For example, the 1952 Miller-Urey experiment showed that the early primordial environment could create the amino acids necessary for life. A year later James Crick and Francis Watson's discovery of the double-helix DNA strand in 1953 was a giant leap for science and helped confirm Darwin's musings. The next fifty-six years saw a massive expansion of knowledge in this area, opening an entire field of genetic research and engineering. The entire human genome has been mapped, as have those of common chimpanzee relatives, with whom we share a 98% identical genetic match. It would be complete ignorance to assume that a 2% difference is simply random happenstance. Darwin could only presume this relation through skeletal comparisons and presumptions of lineage; today we have genetic proof in the numbers to confirm the relation.

Without On the Origin of Species as the ultimate go-to guide, what do evolution seekers turn to? Unlike religions, which rely on a singular and mostly unchanging holy book, evolution has a perk of an unending supply of continually updated sources written by a wide array of scientists and scholars alike. There's no need to keep reading the same musty verses over and over when each science publication brings new information and discovery with each page! If I may, I'd like to recommend Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish or Carl Zimmer's At the Water's Edge, and pretty much anything by Richard Dawkins. You really can't go wrong with these. They're new books and, in a couple years, I'll recommend totally different new releases.

Evolution Takes a Long Time.
Theologians wonder, if evolution is so great, then why haven't we seen it happening before our very eyes? The answer to this one should be blatantly obvious: because it takes a frikkin' long time to occur. Maybe it's because they prefer creation myths about the whole of the Universe and humanity being sprung into existence within the period of a mere week some six-thousand years ago. This apparently creates an impatience when it comes to the extraordinary amount of time that secularists prefer with the Earth forming up some 4.6 billion years ago. Modern Homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., you and I) only appeared approximately 20,000 years ago -- not even a blink of an eye on the geologic time scale.

Do you like movies? Here's an excellent video that puts things into context, by compressing those four and a half billion years to just sixty seconds. The whole of complex life is but a cacophony in the last five seconds.

Evolution shouldn't be viewed as a sudden dead-ended, three-sixty leap from one organism to the next. Instead, new organisms appear through gradual mutations. Consider the old adage about which came first, the chicken or the egg. The answer, technically, is neither. Not-quite chickens laid not-quite chicken eggs. Still not-quite but almost chickens hatched from these not-quite eggs, grew up, mated, and laid still not-quite but almost chicken eggs. These hatched into just nearly chickens who would go on to lay just nearly chicken eggs, from which -- though many more permutations -- would eventually hatch the modern chicken from an egg laid by a just-on-the-brink-of-being-a-modern-but-for-all-intents-and-purposes-is chicken. Evolution takes time. Very long lengths of time, thousands and millions of years lengths of time. So it's not as easy as some omniscient sky pixie snapping his fingers and creating entire leagues of creeping things in the course of an afternoon.

Consider cetacean development briefly. Fossil evidence says that our modern whales and dolphins started out as wolf-like hoofed animals that turned to the water for better hunting prospects. Natural selection enters the fray, developing these animals to be the fittest in their environment and survive the new obstacles they find in the water. So wolf-like Pakicetus gives way to Indohyus, then further on to the somewhat clumsy Ambulocetus, an animal that gets along well in both water and on land. More and more mutations occur as each new species rises for a time, their predecessors being removed by Darwinian breeding. The proto-cetaceans grow more accustomed to live underwater, with Kutchicetus and Maiacetus being the last to spend time on land (as evidenced by a fossilized fetus in the Maiacetus remains, oriented head-first towards the vaginal opening as in all land-birth mammals). By the time of Dorudon and Basilosaurus, these animals were fully aquatic and it was only a matter of time before the Dorudon line gave way to the whales and dolphins of today. This entire process took fifty million years to adapt land mammals to life underwater and it proves a complete absence of any relation between whales and fish -- all appearances aside.

Those Wacky Transitional Species!
Creationists love to argue that, if evolutionary mutation is so plausible and evident, then where are these transitional forms? Surely there must be organisms that show the gradual shift from one sort of species to the next, right? It's interesting that Creationists refuse the existence of even one single transitional species, when paleontologists find themselves with more transitional fossils than they know what to do with. Every time one of these transitions is discovered it opens up yet another gap in the fossil record as the newly-discovered species is fitted into its proper place.

Readers of this blog surely know that there are at the very least twelve transitional fossils (with my cheeky inclusion of modern man as a thirteenth), given my Twelve Transitional Fossils Before Christmas Countdown two months ago. These were only twelve that I thought would be interesting, would be important, and would have sufficient information published and ready to use. Unfortunately, I had to leave out literally dozens of other terrific alternatives. As an example of their sheer numbers, since I began planning that countdown in November, I've seen the publication of at least five significant transitional finds: Epidexipteryx, a dinosaur with very decidedly feathered plumage, representing a step closer to birds (technically not a transitional form, but leading to one in Archaropteryx, Day Seven). Odontochelys, an early turtle that featured only a bottom shell plastron (seen on Day Six). Maiacetus, an early proto-whale and close descendant of Ambulocetus, Day Nine. How about Permarachne and Palaeothele, a pair of early spiders (one of which was webless and had a trailing flagellum!). Not bad for only three months!

So yeah, there are transitional species galore! The coming of this grand Darwin Day was also a motivator for me to focus on transitional fossils over Christmas. I've been setting you up for months. Clever, eh?

The Missing Segments.
Here's a very important difference between the Creationist philosophy and secular evolution: a matter of fallibility. Creationists rely on a single (extremely old!) book to tell them about an infallible world created by an infallible deity and how all the woes and worry are because human pettiness and greed came along and mucked it all up (with the help of talking animals, if you're into that sort of thing). Judeo-Christianity likes the Tree of Knowledge story while the Ancient Greeks preferred Pandora's Box. Either way, it's all about self-important people fouling up their god's hard work and earning his eternal punishment as a result. Inversely, evolution is science. Science is fallible and is produced by fallible human beings. However, unlike solidified theology, science is subject to peer review and retesting designed to work out any kinks before hitting the market. The places where it can sometimes fall short is simply a lack of discovery. Darwin could not possibly have known about any of the scientific advancements that followed his death, between all the fossil finds and genetic research. His fallibilities (in particular, not seeing visions of the future) contributed to the shortcomings in his own work. However, as already established, Darwin himself represents only the beginning, not the end. Those who followed in his footsteps corrected his mistakes, made new discoveries, and brought new knowledge to the fold.

Additionally, much of this work is contingent on fossil evidence of past organisms that provide links between long extinct plants and animals and the modern day. Unfortunately, fossil hunting is more luck than anything. Not only did the animal have to undergo the difficult process of becoming fossilized to begin with (and who knows how many species are forever lost from a lack of fossilization), but those fossils must, after millions of years, make their way back up to the surface at a time when a paleontologist stumbles across them. Fossils far underground are of no good to anyone. Finally, the fossils have to be carefully excavated and properly identified (with fingers crossed that all the pieces are there). It is a difficult, expensive, and laborious process to uncover new fossil evidence.

Despite it all, a recent Gallup poll shows that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution. This is a dismal figure. This is also a case where higher numbers do not prove the more correct ideology. Granted, to be fair, 25% voted to adamantly cling to Fourteenth Century holy books to explain the natural world. That final 36% couldn't make up their mind either way. The combined 61% from the no/don't know categories don't win from being a majority by placing faith in sky pixies and boogiemen; it simply means that a dreary majority of Americans favor ignorance to science. Interestingly, if broken down by education, 74% of those polled who had college degrees supported evolution over any form of so-called Intelligent Design.

How does the United States compare with the rest of the world? Science ran a poll in 2005 to find that answer and the result is simply pathetic. The Science poll ranked the U. S. with an approximately 40% acceptance of evolution figure. The U. S. is also at the bottom of their list. Lovely Iceland, on the other hand, home of Björk and elf belief, scores an acceptance in the high 80s. They're also the first country to elect an openly gay leader, making them more progressive than stodgy old America. Additionally, it's possibly worth noting that the top nations on this list place very high emphasis on education.

In Closing.
So there you have it. A decent handful of things that Creationists can't relate to in evolution. In short, it seems to me that their lack of understanding about how evolutionary thought works comes from an attempt to apply the same logic and criteria from their religious texts -- stories of ultra-powerful gods and mystical happenings, of magic and voo-doo and miracles -- to the completely different mindsets held by secular and rational believers of evolution. Charles Darwin, the man of the hour and a brilliant naturalist, is still just some guy who got some things right and got some things wrong. That is the absolutely important key! Evolution's whole point is that it is constantly improving on itself, advancing itself to become better and stronger. That's natural selection. Not only in the wild, as plants and animals improve upon their forms over thousands of generations to become better suited to their environment, but also the scientists who improve over thousands of experiments to develop a model of the universe in correspondence with the cold, hard facts. Religion, on the other hand, promotes stagnation. That everything that is, everything that was, and everything that ever will be has been as such since the day they were created. Nothing can ever change, nothing can ever improve. What a depressing worldview!

So in the end Darwin got some things wrong. We all get things wrong. But his lasting legacy was popularizing a newfangled theory of the world that took off and provides us with so many answers today about the natural world ... without ever having to turn to supernatural sources for guidance.


Engaged 23 August 2010 | Updated 23 August 2010