Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Evolution by Natural Selection

I posted this at Pithy Banter as a response to AJMac's criticism of evolution.

I hate this topic. I'm not sure if it's ignorance, or fear, or a failure to be intellectually honest, or too much faith in editorialists and website creators. But this ultimate origins debate is just another wedge plunged deep into the fabric of this divided country. How silly. It all comes, in the end, down to faith. Like I've said before, I can't tell you what happened before the Big Bang, or whether the Big Bang even happened, so the idea that God started it all and made some very cool things happen (whether one believes He's "personal" or not) makes the most sense to me. Because I cannot prove it, however, I must take it on faith.

Evolution by natural selection, in contrast, doesn't require much in the way of faith. It only requires attentiveness and real intellectual honesty. I do not feel compelled to stretch and pull and push what I have observed and what my human coinhabitants of this planet have carefully researched to comport with every word in the Bible. I believe God has it all worked out, but He wants us to work hard to understand it. To use that big brain.

Full disclosure: I do my best here, based on my best understanding. But the guys who do this work for a living are the best ones to consult. So if you don't believe me, ask them. Do a web search: the fight is alive and kicking out there.

Here goes.

Darwinism is not a religion. While I accept the notion that all beliefs are in some way grounded in faith, Darwinism has nothing to do with belief in or reverence for a supernatural power, or an organized system founded on such belief. It might be a cause pursued with zeal or conscience, but–at least to the extent by "Darwinism" AJM means "evolution by natural selection"–Darwinism is a scientific theory. It is an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. Scientists work by falsification: if they are intellectually honest, they take the theory as their best view of reality until some severely conflicting data or better explanations come along. Einstein's relativity: theory. Earth orbiting the sun: theory. Existence and characteristics of atoms: theory. Molecular interaction: theory. Electricity: theory. Movement of light: theory. Scientific theory–including evolution by natural selection–is not some pipe-dream, or unreliable, speculative wish. Neither is evolution by natural selection "illogical." In fact, like all good science, it is purely logical, having none of the trappings of human emotion: hope, adherence to authority for fear of offending such authority, or fancy. Instead, it is based on falsification: posing a hypothesis and assaulting it with potentially undermining facts. By doing this–I believe–evolution by natural selection shows us how incredibly elegant, complex, and beautiful God is. But that is not the purpose of science.

AJM says that inter-species mutation is common. He’s right. It’s called anagenesis, and it is a crucial element of the process of evolution by natural selection. It’s the reason humans spend billions of dollars a year trying to combat viruses like HIV that–by prioritizing and replicating only the its genes that best allow it to exist in and exploit its present environment–mutate faster than we can kill them. What AJM fails to accept is that genetic changes also can accumulate within an isolated portion of the species but not the whole species, as that smaller population adapts to its local environment, such as a Pacific island. At a certain point intra-species mutations make it so distinct from the main part of the population that it cannot breed with the majority. It becomes a new species. This–in contrast to what AJM contends–enjoys abundant evidence in the fossil record. What Darwin described as "closely allied" species, such as flightless rhea species in South America rather than ostrich species in Africa or moa species in New Zealand, are clear examples of speciation. Anatomical evidence also abounds, such as the existence of a detached pelvis and useless tiny legs in the skeleton of an early whale, which links this animal to ancient antelope species. DNA analysis, of course, has directly confirmed the shared similarities between divergent species, even concluding that, through a comparison of the efforts of the Human Genome Project and the Mouse Genome Project, of 30,000 total genes in each species, 99% of them had counterparts in the other species. This on top of the well-established fact that humans share 98% of the same genes with pygmy chimpanzees.

AJM says that no one has directly observed such speciation occur, however. Science relies on both direct observation and inference, like so many other disciplines. The absence of direct observation–as any faithful Christian knows–does not eliminate the existence of that being observed. That said, it is true that no one has directly observed speciation, because it occurs much less frequently than anagenesis, and occurs over time periods longer than a research scientist’s life. However, one set of scientists specializing in observation of 35 generations of fruit fly, and another looking at 20,000 generations of E. coli bacteria are very close to confirming this relatively rare event. Which highlights AJM’s observation that there is not enough time for speciation to happen. I’m not sure where he got his numbers (perhaps he needs to consult those who study evolution by natural selection for a living not just cosmologists who do it for fun and in an effort to synthesize Biblical references to scientific observation), but the numbers I’ve seen convince me–and legions of scientists–that the earth is old enough.

The irreducible complexity argument is compelling, but–at least for me–not particularly worrisome. The eyeball–or for that matter the human brain–is so complex as to be otherworldly, or, as some would say, only within the province of God as Creator. I certainly empathize with such awe. However, over time, as organisms evolved to require eyes, the eyes were formed. Each piece had its own origin, driven to purpose and to interaction with other pieces by external circumstances. Cells evolved–through genes that produced such characteristics because they were the most well adapted–sensitivity to external forces, touch, then light, then, as parts of a whole, to vision. Molecules become organelles become cells become organs become systems. It’s not as mystical as the mouse-trap analogy suggests. Geneticists today have a very good understanding of how genes control such phenotypes, and this research plays a critical role in medical research. Since I have no problem with God somehow making this happen (and I fall into 88% of the American population based on 20 years of Gallup polls), I’m not troubled.

The problem, of course, for so many who are uneducated about natural selection, is that it could not happen because it is thought to be "random." For anyone who understands natural selection, however, it is clear that the genetic preferences exhibited by changing organisms and their parts are hardly ever the product of chance or chaos. Instead, they are the product of precise, finely tuned, incredibly detailed adaptations to specific environmental conditions. As the environment forced the best traits to be exploited through reproduction and the worst ones to be eliminated, the best traits prevailed. (For me, this amounts to God making music with genes as notes.) Finally, as to human phenomena, all I can say is this: we have incredible genes that have best adapted us to this thing we call humanity. And both AJM and I can thank God for them.

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