The Minority Retort
At a funeral a few years ago, I had a memorable conversation with one of Geoffrey’s brothers. He is the in-laws family scholar, a PhD, with degrees in philosophy (Catholic) and law (yup – Catholic). He is also extremely conservative, has a large family of children, who are home-schooled and then enrolled at a local Catholic college — all of them, no individual choices. We talked about science and the issue of life and death, since we were both raised as Roman Catholics. His simple point of view was, as he frowned thoughtfully, he didn’t think much of it. Larry lives in a state that is attempting to take advanced science out of the public education curriculum altogether. He grew up in California but never studied science at all.
Having been raised to respect and admire scientists, I was speechless. Naturally, sitting around at a wake, one cannot engage in a deep enough discussion to address his beliefs, or my data, but I recognized something else: we were not really living on the same plane, in the same world, communicating on the same channel. There would be no discussion, because the foundational underpinnings that would be required for both of us to engage factually, were just not established.
As individuals we develop our world view based on a number of factors, principal among them the ideology our parents held and imparted to us long before we could evaluate them and independently arrive at judgments as to their reliability and validity. Our education, our social group, and the media are highly influential. When I saw the silly controversy over the white vs blue dress picture last weekend (something so easily manipulated in software — and a rather sub-par photograph to begin with), the division between people who saw one or another color scheme once again drove home the idea of how difficult it is to reach consensus in a world where people hold opposite viewpoints and are immune to contradictory input.
This is all my way of saying, if you base your understanding of the world on ideology vs empirical evidence, you are not necessarily going to hear what I am about to say here. It is not that I am not interested in your personal point of view — my curiosity extends just enough to find all sorts of good people intriguing. It is simply that I am operating in a different world than many people who negate established physical laws and so am unwilling to argue about it too extensively, because we are simply speaking different languages and basing our lives on very different maps.
Once something becomes an axiom or law in science, it is considered immutable until a revolutionary concept comes along to mount a formidable and worthy challenge. A well-known example would be quantum physics and its challenge to relativity. There is a wonderful book on this entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn. Within the community of trained scientists, those who have proven themselves to have developed the most accurate and explanatory ‘maps’ of the world are those who, over the centuries, have laid down the basic axioms or laws of the physical universe on which we have built our world.
Application of these laws has enabled human society to be increasingly successful in grappling with its needs, from building structures that don’t fall down, to providing sufficient food supplies, to traveling to other parts of our galaxy and beyond, to solving interpersonal problems that we face as social (group) creatures. It started in our written records with that eminent empiricist Aristotle and continues to the present day, following accepted and productive steps that every recognized and properly trained scientist employs. If you want a wonderful book that traces the development of the scientific method and approach to the physical (and social) world, you might want to find a copy of Robert Bierstedt’s The Making of Society. He begins with Plato.
An axiom of physical science is the principle of evolution. Notice I did not say theory here. The word theory in the scientific community has a completely different meaning than in common parlance. I am not going to argue about this, it is simply true that the word theory often refers to such established laws as gravity and the like as well as to lesser hypotheses or assumptions in the process of being tested. So, if you want to believe that evolution is held to be questionable by credible scientists, please take that discussion to the Koch and Drudge and Faux network and their participants. We cannot talk about it here for the same reason I explained at the beginning of this post.
By the way, Deanna and Al (my side of the family) are both science researchers. Deanna and I were chatting over the weekend as she just returned from giving a talk on her work. She told me that there is a PhD student at a well-known research school who is being funded by a group that believes in alien invasions of the earth. Apparently, a colleague there told her, there is a deliberate movement afoot to plant believers in these conspiracy theories at established research institutions so they can get credentials that certain groups can use to feign validity for their beliefs. This simply shows that there are some people who are willing to say whatever you want, for a price. But they are a tiny minority, thankfully.
So, why am I discussing evolution here? From time to time when I mention something even hinting of science, a handful of acquaintances have challenged me on various topics. This is one of the favorites. So this is my response to that tiny minority in the world who are doubters.
Here is where a cursory knowledge of complex subjects leads to error. I am not a religious scholar, but I do know a great deal about science. The Creationist philosophy and discussion belongs in parochial and other religious organizations, not in public school, not on a blog like mine. If I were to visit and take part in a religious/spiritual discussion, evolution would be no more relevant than would the spherical nature of the universe and its circling bodies. I don’t want any one religious interpretation of life being taught in public schools and I am not qualified to debate its finer points in any scholarly way. Speaking of Creationism and Science as factual equivalents is a futile endeavor. They are on different channels. Creationism and religion are more akin to philosophy than they are to anything scientific, although I do not see a necessary contradiction between Christianity and science, either.
Evolution is a given, a law of the earth’s development over billions of years. The planet has changed as it has cooled internally. Continents have formed, merged, split and undergone metamorphoses. The climate has evolved and species have arisen and extinguished, sometimes in mass extinctions, other times gradually. To the question of whether there are species still developing and evolving, the answer is yes. The easiest timely example is Ebola – we can see through sequencing their DNA that they are evolving rapidly. Evolution and development are not uniform. They proceed in kicks and starts. There is mutation, there are external cataclysmic forces that interfere with what may have started out as steady progress.
Hence, the dinosaur disappearance and the rise of the surviving species, among them ground rodents that climbed up into trees and were the beginning of the development of many modern species, including primates. Species either adapt to change and survive, or fail and disappear. These are known, accepted, established facts arrived at through centuries of careful, methodical rigorous research. The details and specifics of this development are continually being amplified and refined, but the paradigm itself and its outline are established, acknowledged and accepted as true by the great majority of the scientific community. These facts enable modern medicine. There was a time when microscopy had not yet been developed when all people knew was they came down with an illness, survived it or died. At some point, the instruments that enabled scientists of the time to see microorganisms led to a revolution in their understanding of health and disease. Science is creative, imaginative and practical.
Are human beings still evolving physically (and socially, etc.)? Of course! Why don’t we see a new human species then? (There is only one right now). It takes a long, long time — not in an individual lifetime, or even many lifetimes would we see a major change in a hominid species. I will tell you however that you have these changes in your body already, like a vestigial coccyx and appendix –leftovers from an earlier version of Homo sapiens, literally millions of years ago when we first ranged out from the forests of Africa.
And, something else, our physical environment is vastly different from the one that we emerged in 5 million years ago. If we were to expect a human-like species to develop today, it may or may not have occurred and would likely look quite different from what came out of the savannas of Africa when the earliest hominid species emerged. Even if we sped up the changes, we wouldn’t necessarily have developed human beings in the more modern day Sahara that replaced those savannas. The latest exciting evidence suggests that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had equal intelligence but environmental factors led to the ultimate success of one species of human being and the eventual disappearance of the other. But here is another easy to understand consideration of continuing evolution. There are thousands of resources and we can’t cover them all here (you may be yawning by now). By the way, this is not a gotcha question as some might think. It is pretty easy if one is informed about this field.
Some species evolve and change quickly, like fruit flies and bacteria or viruses. Some do so over millennia, like mammals and other complex creatures, including us. You won’t see much change in our lifetimes even if an asteroid hits the earth and causes mass extinctions and drastic climate change, as was simply and entertainingly depicted in movies such as Deep Impact and The Day After Tomorrow.
You cannot go to a philosopher to get this information. I would suggest that you not look for this kind of proof in churches and temples. Furthermore and even more importantly, don’t look to the fossil fuel industry or to politicians on their payroll for this kind of data. Read the professional articles and books written by evolutionary and developmental scientists. Once you have done your homework, you will be in a better position to understand the laws that underlie the discipline and its subsidiary fields and how they help us live our lives more successfully.
Just like anything else you study, you need to start at the beginning and make your way to the end systematically and diligently. You cannot jump into the end zone from the starting line. I once got into a discussion with a scholar from Hebrew University about Kabbalah, in which I was quite interested at that time. He told me that I had a lot of previous study to do about exoteric Judaism before I could hope to understand its esoteric core. He was right.
So, rather than spend our time here regurgitating the clearly stated position of science on evolution, you might find this link informative. Whether you agree or not with what is said, it states the majority position of the world’s scientific community on the topic of evolution. This position is not based on ideology, philosophy, political party, belief systems, mythology, conspiracies or any other non-relevant approaches to the world we live in. It is empiricism little different form that employed and espoused by the Aristotelian school of thousands of years ago. It is based on undisputed, proven fact, and dovetails with my many discussions on science already found elsewhere on this blog. BTW, this will be the last time I blog about science here. I have said everything I care to in this venue.
I also like the balanced, clear-headed and calm statement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles on this topic.
This is my brief 😀 response and likely the last time I will address the law of evolution on this blog. Sorry to be so long-winded about it, it is a huge subject and this is merely a personal blog. I am not here to be an apologist for scientific proofs or for evolution, for that matter. Still, there are few black and white topics in this world today and this is one of them. If you want to get your information from non-scientific sources, that is your prerogative, but you will be endarkened by following an inaccurate map. If we are on the same channel, you and I will have little to argue about. If we are not, there is no common ground on which to discuss this topic, you and I. Let’s talk about whether you saw a white or blue dress instead. We will likely have a lot more fun doing so.
Images: Beth Byrnes archives/ Natural History Museum of Los Angeles