November 15, 2004

Theory of Evolution

The November issue of National Geographic magazine is dramatically titled "Was Darwin Wrong?" The conclusion is that, no, Darwinian evolution has been accumulating more and more evidence in its favor over the years.

Yet this information doesn't seem to have made it out into the public as much as it might have done. The article reports that a Gallup poll of US residents indicated that around 45% of adults believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." A total of 12% believe that evolution was responsible for our present form, and the other 37% believe that evolution is in some respects the divinely initiated mechanism of creation.

I'm not worried about that 37%, because the purpose of science isn't to say whether or not there is a god. Science is concerned only with issues that can be proved or disproved. The problem is that while there are questions which we know are unprovable either way, such as the existence of a divine being, most other things fall into a grey area. For these things, there are theories.

As the article points out, a theory in the scientific sense refers to the current explanation of a phenomenon that has the most evidence on its side. Thus, we have theories that explain atomic structure, electricity, geological processes, gravity, etc. These theories are 'believed' to the extent that they adequately predict observed behavior, and that new evidence doesn't contradict them. To believe in a scientific theory is not, as a creationist recently insisted to me that it was, anything like believing in a matter of faith.

I thought the whole point of having a faith was to trust without evidence. I seem to remember something about that in church, but that was some time ago.

However, the theory of electricity is only useful to believe in so long as it gets current to my wall sockets. I can easily believe in the theory of gravity because long observation demonstrates that everything in our environment falls towards the nearest very large object, the Earth, at a constant rate. These theories are among many that permit scientists and engineers to make useful predictions allowing us to run industries and build civic infrastructure.

The article included one of my favorite predictions made via evolutionary theory in the 1800's by Darwin himself: "Orchids, wondrously adapted for controlling their pollination by insects, intrigued Darwin. The parts of their strangely modified flowers, he saw, correspond to the flower parts on simpler plants, suggesting evolutionary change. One species that caught his eye was the Madagascar orchid Angraecum sesquipedale, with its 11-inch-long nectar receptacle. He predicted that somewhere in Madagascar, a place he had never visited, must live a moth with a proboscis 11 inches long, adapted to harvest the orchid's nectar. Forty years later two entomologists revealed the Madagascan sphinx moth Xanthopan morganii praedicta, confirming Darwin's forecast. Such mutual adaptation - the moth to the flower, the flower to the moth - is called coevolution." The vignette is accompanied by photographs of both the orchid and the improbable-looking moth.

Darwin began to form his theory in part when noticing that organisms that appeared to be related tended to be clustered together geographically, rather than distributed according to their habitat type. Darwin noticed that finches in the Galapagos, no matter how widely their feeding habits and specialization might go, were more closely related to each other than to birds with similar ecological functions in other parts of the world.

Today, it would be easy enough to look at Australia, where the native mammals fill all the same niches as animals in similar habitats elsewhere. But the marsupials of isolated Australia share the trait of bearing their young very early, leaving the tiny newborn to find its way unaided to its mother's pouch for further gestation. This is a much more fragile arrangement than the way that placental mammals, like humans, have offspring. Marsupials are easily outcompeted by placental mammals with their higher infant survival rates, and the facts of the case lead to the conclusion that their common ancestry diverged from that of other mammals before placental gestation evolved.

As the theory of evolution has developed, new evidence from genetics has backed it up. Sometimes it has suggested different relationships between organisms than would be obvious by observing body plans, but it has upheld the relatedness of living organisms to each other, and broadly agrees with the fossil record of the appearance of new forms.

I hope to use this space to go into greater detail on different aspects of evolutionary theory in the future, to better arm interested readers with the facts. What do you say when someone insists that there aren't any transitional forms in the fossil record? What if they suggest that no lab results or observations in the wild have ever demonstrated the possibility of evolution? Well, it'll be a shared learning process. There's a big difference between studying biology and figuring out how to present it to a skeptical audience.

There is a concerted effort on the part of a segment of our society bent on picking a fight between science and faith. I always used to believe that the truth could stand up for itself, but it's become obvious that this isn't the case. As long as there are people advocating lies, it's important that advocates of the evidence are at least as outspoken.

Posted by natasha at November 15, 2004 09:32 PM | Science | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

I talked with a woman at a charter school conference in the late 90s. She was the science teacher at a charter school in Colorado. She told me that dinosaurs still live on the Earth today.

Posted by: Modaca at November 16, 2004 05:01 AM

Spective, Earthism, Superconsious mind revisited

Right now I am (and have been for some time) working on a thesis that introduces the concepts of the superconscious mind, the spective creative process, Earthism, and the Earthian belief system. Specifically the Earthian belief system and the superconscious mind strike at the core of this question and debate: science vs. religion, evolution vs. creationism.

In almost every case, mankind has mistaken their notion of god/gods with either their superconscious mind, their dominate ego, nature, the Earth, or our multiverse state of being. Many of these notions may seem radical, but they are a new way of thinking of our existence in this world. God has become this mythical all-encompassing simplified entity to explain very complex multi-facetted components ranging from why we were created, who created us, who is in control, to even the extreme insanity of who told me to kill those innocent people, and who guides me to discriminate, hate, and pass judgment on for not living up to the religious ideal.

According to the religious, God is the sole creative force, but I would argue that our direct experience with the creative on a macro scale would be nature, natural forces embodied in the Earth (Earthism), and on a micro scale our own mind and imagination, our individual creative energy (our consciousness). So to some degree, man was created from the evolutionary process in that we have been created from our previous ancestry of primates over hundreds of thousands of years, but we arrived at mankind once we became conscious of ourselves and our surroundings. Our mind crossed over the threshold of solely acting on instincts and began the process of contemplation.

Contemplation is a superconscious process, a spective process in that we retrospect on our life or the influences, accomplishments, and failures to refine the any solution we wish to produce. This is a reflection on the relatively distant past. Then through the process of introspection, the individual reflects internally to discover his or her artistic/scientific voice usually on a subconscious level, a reflection on the relatively recent past. On a conscious level, the individual projects his or her intentions and perspective in the artwork or revelation, which the spectator can reflect upon and interpret in a moment of time, the present. As with any creative design problem, the individual seeks to prospect a solution or expression to the given artwork, a superconscious process. The artist through the artwork seeks to have an effect and/or influence on the future. The final component of the Spective creative process is being respective of the positive (and sometimes negative) motivation one receives.

That is a bit of a tangent, but my point is that the creative process has been classified in the past by the religious as a connection to the divine, a union with a higher power, known to most as God, or Buddha, or Allah, or Jesus, etc. But in reality it is a union within your own mind, your superconscious mind, your creative, forward thinking, innovative, and imaginative component of your being.

When individuals (like evangels) force their religious principles or moral values on others because they believe that they are doing the work of the lord, they are actually doing the work of a construct within their own mind and acting primarily on the Ego impulse within their mind. They are ruled by their Ego, not by a constructed lord or a god almighty. This is the micro level influence of the mind in an oversimplified nutshell.

As for the macro level of creation, it matters on what scale we desire to consider. On the Earth scale, evolution is evident in mammals, the landscape, weather forces, and even our entire society as a whole – each had a predecessor with influences and changed through a process of adjustment or adaptation. Our society has evolved over the last several thousand years, or de-evolved in some cases. We, as a species, used to dwell in caves, and struggled to survive in the harsh landscape of the elements. Now we have central heating and a vast network of urban comforts and new mass population challenges. We just need to look at how our schools of thought and philosophy, which has evolved over time, continually growing and expanding on the previous and, in some cases, deconstructing the previous cultural norm to reconstruct into something entirely new.

Man as a species has evolved, the evidence is perfectly clear, and those that refuse to see it have chosen to keep their eyes shut (and some insist to force the rest of us to do the same). I for one will never have my eyes forced shut or be blinded by fanatical, ultra religion.

In any case, I am still refining my thoughts, and they will eventually be on my website or in a master’s thesis some time in the future. Thank you for this space for sparking thought and progressive discourse.


Posted by: Tony Scauzillo at November 16, 2004 10:57 AM

The truth can be overlooked and turned asside.
Haven't you ever seen anyone prove that life itself is pointless? Or that God doesn't exist? There are many people with proofs out there.. though they are the least vocal about it.
Science is our art of finding the true nature of this existence. I assure you that, despite the passion I imagine you having for this truth, most simply do not care; it is unlikely that they and their ilk amongst our offspring-to-be will care, either.
For these people, well.. what's wrong with letting them live their blissfully ignorant lives? True, their colaterial damage to the scientific community is extensive, though they have their rights to live as they please as well as we do.
Most people today owe some debt of graditude to science for some reason or another, though not everyone is willing to pay it in learning; maybe these people would rather be primatives than understand the scientist's world. Ah well.

Yes, I can prove that there's no God with a varation of Calculus used on a VPS system. Its 100% accurate, not nearly-perfectly-accurate like most of Calculus. And, yes, I'm quite sure I'm far from the first to discover some absolute proof. You know, though.. I love to see churches and those happy fools singing their praises to the nonexistant God above.

Posted by: reofbl at November 16, 2004 11:04 AM

Post your proof, reofbl, I'd like to see it.

Posted by: TABS at November 16, 2004 11:33 AM

A ultra-religious acquaintance once told me that the dinosaurs were demons, the spawn of the devil, and god destroyed them. I laughed really hard because I thought they were joking, and they felt bad. I'll never forget that.

Posted by: TABS at November 16, 2004 11:37 AM

I read the NG article too, and really enjoyed the non-combative and simply stated mood of the article. I'm curious to read the responses in the next issue as I know it to be a confusingly contentious topic.

I don't know if science really does need to argue loudly with religion. It certainly makes for unbecoming dialogue in most cases. And when it comes down to it, that rock is going to fall anyway.

I think that its important that we as a society decide where research is directed, but the undermining of fact can only mean bad things for the society. I hope this discussion continues.

Posted by: Andy at November 16, 2004 05:22 PM

"She told me that dinosaurs still live on the Earth today."

Well if you count birds, their most direct living descendants, you could sort of make a case for that ;)

"I don't know if science really does need to argue loudly with religion."

I think that would be fairly counterproductive. Most religious people, including many clergy, have come to accept and be comfortable with some way of living with scientific fact alongside their faith. Again, evolution says nothing whatever about whether or not there is a god, only about the material mechanism of species diverging from each other.

The argument is with that segment of thought that insists there be a knock down, dragout, there-shall-be-only-one, fight to the finish contest between their beliefs and observed fact. The problem with choosing not to engage is that the public myth is allowed to persist that there isn't much evidence for evolution, or that a scientific theory is no different in substance than the street corner ranting of the guy with the 'end is near' sandwichboard.

That this ground in the public mind has been ceded without little contest seems to be a contributing factor in other social ills. When large swathes of the public believe outright lies they've been told about something as important as war, and when the media continues to act as if it were impossible to separate fact from fiction, I say it's about time to stand up for fact-based discussion on every available front.

Finally, the more I come to know about these things (though still not very much in the grand scheme), the more convinced I am of their importance. I can't think of a better way to say it than that there's a sort of ethics or morality implied by an accurate accounting of our origins, and the origin and evolution of our environment. I need to think for a while about how best to say it, but I believe that no one can truly value life on Earth until it sinks in what a long and fragile struggle it's been to accumulate conditions favorable to complex life.

Posted by: natasha at November 16, 2004 09:10 PM