Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Evolution "Defined"

Since I've mentioned the strange image in the "Left Behind" game, I thought I'd spend a few moments to comment on the tripe served up in the text.

There's a deception occurring in the popular media about so-called "proof for evolution." The deception is this--"micro-evolution",a scientific fact, is used to prove "macro-evolution," an unsubstantiated theory.

I should first begin by apologising to anyone who has brought an irony-meter with them. Unfortunately most warranties don't cover statements from creationists, and my insurance certainly doesn't cover them. I'm not entirely certain as to why the author of this statement chose to use the term "popular media" to describe the arena where the alleged deception is supposed to be occurring: if there were a deception occurring of the nature described then it would be a world-wide phenomenon, and most certainly could not be restricted to the "popular media". Nevertheless, it is useful to note the concession in the statement: an acceptance that "micro-evolution" is a proven fact. Where the game developers have gone wrong is in assuming that micro-evolution (which they later define as dog-breeds, and the like) is the sole reason that "macro-evolution" is true.

Macro-evolution equals genetic changes that transform one "species" into another. For example tree shrews that eventually become the primates-humans and apes.

I have to say that reading this statement was something of a relief; it's certainly a whole lot better than the usual "man descended from monkeys" tripe one normally hears from the creationism crowd. I'm confused as to why the developers chose to place the word "species" in quotes; unless they're denying that species exist..

Is it scientifically credible to use the genetic changes within a species to argue that these same mechanisms can progressively transform one species into a more successful and adapted new species? Next time you hear a report about more evidence for evolution ask yourself whether micro-evolution is being used to prove macro-evolution.

In a word? Yes! Of course it's credible! As an example of micro-evolution, the developers use the example of a two dog breeds: a pit-bull and a poodle. These are two remarkably dissimilar dogs. Apply the two core principles of evolution: small genetic mutations and natural selection, add a sufficient amount of time, and you have macro-evolution. This is the problem with the lack of imagination shown by creationists: they forget about the sheer volume of time involved. Which brings us to:

While you're at it, have you considered all the other evolutions that must take place before you even get to organic and macro-evolution? Little things like cosmic, chemical, and stellar and planetary evolution. If you are going to believe in evolution you need to look at the complete picture.

I cannot possibly disagree with this statement. I'm half-wondering whether the game developers were deliberately planting a "these creationists are nuts!" statement, whilst trying to get the game past some half-asleep censors.

Stellar, cosmic and planetary sciences are absolutely fascinating, and give the student a much greater understanding of the time involved in forming complex systems from simple laws. Stellar evolution gives rise to the whole world of chemical elements we find occurring naturally in the universe. Study of planetary evolution hopes to provide answers to questions regarding the proliferation of life within the universe. Even having a basic understanding of these processes shows just how likely biological evolution is compared to the rather dull solution offered by the creationists.

But why stop at the seriously interesting topics? Look at all systems that evolve. In my own field of computer programming it is reasonably certain that a complex system that works did not come in to existence from scratch but has been artificially evolved from earlier, simpler, systems. HTTP took over from Gopher, GUI's from text-based systems, text-based systems from tele-type systems, and so forth. Evolution of one sort or another is all around us, and is constantly happening. CD players, laptops, USB memory sticks, broadband, blue tooth. All these systems evolved - artificially - from something simpler. Each underwent their own form of selection. The only difference between technological evolution and biological evolution is that the biological system competed in a natural system.

Micro-evolution is the only phase of the process that's been observed and documented. The other required phases of evolution are assumed and largely unsupported.

Wrong! One does not even need to look at the fossil record or grasp the vastness of geological time to see just how wrong this is. One doesn't even need to have an awareness of what Dawkin's describes (in the Blind Watchmaker) as "circle species". One simply needs to turn on the television and watch a few nature documentaries. Why suppose - for example - that seals are an evolutionary end-point? As mamals they're remarkably well adapted to water, but they're no whales. Penguins are flightless birds that now use their old wings to power sleekly through the water, whilst being chased by seals. Again: why presuppose that they're an end-product of evolution? We are simply looking at a snap-shot of the evolutionary process, and we can see on television our very own "transitionary-fossils" that paleontologists milena from now will be hunting.

Sir Arthur Keith, a famous British scientist said it well: "Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it only because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable.

It is a common tactic of creationists and evolution-deniers to quote mine scientists, and I originally was convinced that the quote would have been taken out of context. It was with much surprise that I found that - rather than being taken out of context - the quote is actually a figment of the imagination. Sir Arthur Keith simply never made that statement. So what did Sir Arthur Keith really think of evolution?

The Origin of Species is still the book which contains the most complete demonstration that the law of evolution is true. Sir Arthur Keith, introduction to Origin of Species

Not looking good...

And why should each of the islands have its own peculiar creations? Special creation could not explain such things. Sir Arthur Keith, introduction to Origin of Species

Oh dear. Doesn't look like Sir Arthur Keith held that position at all.. Score one for "lying for Jesus(tm)".

Evolution is a process that every programmer should be familiar with it, and I have to admit to finding it peculiarly distasteful when a fellow programmer doesn't get it. Evolution is a simple process: it has simple rules which are applied for a sufficient time to give rise to complex systems. This is something that every programmer and computer systems designer should be striving for in their own systems. Evolution exists everywhere: in the natural biological world, in cosmology and in technology. There is something perverse about suggesting that only one form of evolution - and one for which such an abundance of evidence is available if one is only prepared to look - should so raise the ire of the religious because it doesn't fit in with what a book written several thousand years ago says. That's just dumb.

1 comment:

JackalMage said...

A quick comment - While I get what you're saying when you discuss the other kinds of 'evolution', one should always be careful in equating this with biological evolution.

In many cases, we use the word 'evolution' in its lay definition, where it simply means change. This is the sense in which we talk of stellar evolution and such. Biological evolution is a very specific use of the term, covering random mutation and reproduction coupled with various forms of non-random selection.

Yeah, that doesn't just describe biological systems. GAs use it quite directly, and it can be seen in effect in many other fields. But many creationists/IDists like to conflate places where 'evolution' means 'change' and where it means the process of evolution as defined by biologists. They then use that confusion to try and ask how 'evolution' can explain how stars formed.

Very nice exploration of the quote, though. I will remember that in the future. Thanks!