Friday, 9 September 2011

Why Evolution is True

I’ve noticed a number of recent articles in the news about evolution, and as usual, the creation versus evolution debate emerges in the comments below each article. Aren’t we done yet?

Let me give you a brief anecdotal history. I first encountered the Theory of Evolution when I was 11 or 12 years old, in an encyclopaedia. I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. In the 1980s, South Africa was not just a semi-fascist state (I say “semi” because we did have elections). It was also a deeply religious state, with Christianity as the state religion. The education system was based on biblical beliefs. In fact, even the cover of a school science syllabus featured a bullet point stating that the purpose of science teaching was to draw the pupils’ attention to the marvels of God’s creation. So when I first saw that famous sequence of human ancestors, each standing more upright than the last, and each carrying a more advanced tool than the last, my first and only thought was “Oh, OK. That’s just obviously right. That makes perfect sense.” Genesis was out the window in an instant. It didn’t take any arguments; I did not have to hear Richard Dawkins speak. All I had to do was see that image sequence and it was blindingly clear. I remember quite clearly how my biology textbook at school skirted the issue by using the term ‘adaptation’.

So this brings up the question of why there is even any debate these days, about creation versus evolution. I can think of at least two answers to this. My first answer lies again in my own experience. My parents came from mixed religious backgrounds, and so consequently, I was never taken to religious training of any kind - neither Shul nor Sunday School. For this, I am extremely grateful. Because it is my experience that all of my peers who did go for religious training are, to this day, by and large, believers. I can only suspect a degree of brainwashing. The Catholic Jesuit motto is "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". Children under the age of 12, says Jean Piaget, are incapable of abstract reasoning. But religion is abstract reasoning _par excellence_; there is nothing more abstract. Even numbers, which are quite abstract, can be pointed to in the real world. Love can be felt. Religion? Maybe a religious experience can be felt, but certainly, God’s done a good job of staying invisible. So how or why would intelligent adults continue to believe? It can only be because of training in childhood. It cannot be because the force of the evidence is on their side.

Here are two recent examples of evidence being on the side of evolution: Firstly, many believers satirise the Theory of Evolution as being about us evolving from fish which learned to walk on their fins, and which subsequently took to the land. They pour scorn on this idea. Yet examples of this taking place right under our nose exist. Consider the Mudskipper, or the [Pacific Leaping Blenny]( Or consider the recent find of [Australopithecus Sediba, in South Africa] ( I personally saw this find, and was asked to help present the find to tourists last year, on a public holiday. It is quite a humbling experience to stand within one foot of something that is 1.95 million years old, and know that it may very well be your own direct personal ancestor.

Now, I realise that one of the common responses to things like the mudskipper or the leaping blenny is to say, well, why do they still exist if they’re meant to be an ancestral form? Another version of this argument is to say, well, why do apes exist if we purportedly evolved from them? The answer to both forms of this question is that we neither evolved from mudskippers nor apes; they share a common ancestor with us. (Obviously, the mudskippers are far more distantly related). The point of the blenny or mudskipper is that they show that even now, evolution is taking place. Probably, quite recently in their ancestry, one of their forebears developed the mutation that allowed its front fins to be powerful enough for it to crawl onto land. The same model is offered for the arrival of amphibians - newts, in particular. If you compare a tadpole and a newt to a leaping blenny, it is painfully obvious that they’re very closely related. That doesn’t mean, however, that they evolved from each other, rather, it means that they have a common ancestor. The same applies to apes. They can brachiate (swing from the trees), just as we can, due to our wrist architecture. They can walk upright. [Certain chimps even hunt with spears]( They have social structures, binocular colour vision, are omnivorous, have sign language, the list goes on. Do you know, for example, that bats, order Chiroptera - “wing hands” - have five digits - fingers - in their wings, that make up their wings? What about snakes with legs buried in the flesh of their backs? Or whales with the same? Is this ‘by design’ or an evolutionary atavism?

What is the more sensible explanation for these things? That they have similar, or in the case of us and chimps, near-identical DNA by chance? Or that each individual creature is the product of ‘special creation’? That God sat and made each one to look remarkably like the other? Or that they are actually related by blood, as the saying goes? It strikes me that in science, the rule of Occam’s Razor, applies here: keep the explanation as simple as possible. A deity choosing to make billions of slightly different creatures for his own amusement, or billions of slightly different creatures evolving from each other? We even have mastered a form of evolution ourselves: we selectively breed dogs. Those which have desirable characteristics are kept for breeding, those which do not, get neutered.

One of the common misunderstandings about evolution is that it is about how we descend from apes. That’s not what evolution is about. Evolution merely says the following: if an organism has a mutation (a “birth defect” is an example of a harmful mutation) - and, if that mutation helps the organism survive, and it reproduces, its offspring will likely have that mutation too. So, think of how you have your ‘mother’s eyes’ or your ‘father’s legs’. That’s an example of evolution in action. The fact that your mother and father were sufficiently competent and attractive enough to mate, entails that their offspring - you - would have inherited those traits that enabled them to mate in the first place. Which gives you a good chance, too. On the other hand, if your parents had had some prohibitive genetic trait, which had, perhaps, caused them to perish before mating, well, quite simply, you’d not exist, and that trait would not have been passed on. It is important to understand that this obvious truth - a truth so obvious that it is possibly a tautology - _is all that there is_ to the Theory of Evolution. The simian ancestry of man follows from this tautology.

Of course, the latest creationist explanatory model is “intelligent design”. The idea is that some things are too complex to have been evolved, and must have been designed by a designer. “What if you found a watch in a desert?” the usual objection goes. “It’s too complex to have appeared in the desert; it must have been made.” Well, unfortunately, _all_ examples of apparently intelligent design can be explained away by science. I won’t waste space going into it. Let’s ask, instead, about obvious cases of _un_intelligent design. Humans, for example, have an oesophagus and windpipe that share a common canal, permitting us to choke quite easily, unlike other animals. Intelligent design? I don’t think so. What about the above-mentioned atavisms - buried limb remnants? Part of the design, or evolutionary leftovers? What about the appendix? Or a urethra that goes through the prostate rather than around? None of these things seem to be particularly intelligent; they’re more like accidental features which have not been bad enough to make the species extinct. If they’re products of design, the Designer is pretty lousy at His job.

This brings us to the second reason that the ‘creation versus evolution’ debate continues to rage. Believers feel that evolution threatens religion. Many apologists for science argue that evolution does not threaten religion. These apologists are partly correct; it is possible to argue that evolution was set up by God and that it operates according to laws He created. There is a position known as ‘deism’, or, to give it its more popular term, ‘guided creation’ or ‘guided evolution’. The idea of deism is that God started the creation, set up the laws of physics and evolution, and then sat back and let life take its course. There are some problems with deism, however, not the least of which is that it has no scriptural support. God is an intervener. He does not sit back.

But there is at least one substantial scriptural problem that the Theory of Evolution does pose - for Christianity, in particular. If evolution is true - which _all_ the empirical evidence points to - then the book of Genesis - particularly the Garden of Eden story - must be false. If there never was an Adam and Eve, then there never was a Fall of Man. If there never was a Fall of Man, we have never been born with Original Sin. If we are not born with Original Sin, then we are born innocent. In which case, to paraphrase Stephen Hawking, What room, then, for a Redeemer?

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