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The Truth by Candlelight

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Life Ascending: The Ten Greatest Inventions of Evolution

By Nick Lane
W.W. Norton, 2009

Why Evolution Is True

By Jerry A. Coyne
Viking, 2009

In 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania, the administrators of Dover High School required their science teachers to read a note to their classes, telling their students that while Darwin’s Theory of Evolution would be taught in their school, it was still only a theory, that it had gaps not yet filled by evidence, and that Intelligent Design, proposing a conscious intent behind the creation of life in the universe, was an alternate explanation they should consider. Teachers were outraged, parents sued, and the case went before George W. Bush-appointed judge John Jones, who eventually ruled against Dover High’s administrators, citing their attempts to introduce Intelligent Design into the school’s curriculum as a more or less straightforward attempt to mandate the teaching of religion.

In his sharply written and informative book Why Evolution is True, science popularizer Jerry Coyne summarizes:

What Jones had done was simply prevent an established truth from being muddled by biased and dogmatic opponents. Nevertheless, his ruling was a splendid victory for American schoolchildren, for evolution, and, indeed, for science itself.

This is an astonishing thing for anybody who followed the Dover trial to write, and to his credit, Coyne almost immediately qualifies:

All the same, it wasn’t a time to gloat. This was certainly not the last battle we’d have to fight to keep evolution from being censored in the schools. During more than twenty-five years of teaching and defending evolutionary biology, I’ve learned that creationism is like the inflatable roly-poly clown I played with as a child: when you punch it, it briefly goes down, but then pops back up.

But is a comparison with an adorable children’s toy qualification enough? The tension and the travesty of what happened in Dover is that the matter came to trial at all. Coyne’s recounting of the trial hits all the right campfire-story highlights, including Judge Jones’ religious beliefs and the scarifying president who appointed him. But like so many commentators on the occasion, he seems to miss the truly heart-stopping element involved: the case was heard. The trial went forward. Had the Dover High administrators wanted to introduce a sober mention of the Easter Bunny in their science classes, parents would have laughed, not sued – and if Judge Jones, like Pilate’s wife, had had disturbing dreams the night before his verdict, then what? The creationism mention would have been mandated, a bunch of teachers would have resigned, and they’d have been replaced by more religiously compliant subs. In other words, a knife-edge between two relatively equal opponents.

And that was only in comparatively civilized precincts of Dover, Pennsylvania; in most of the rest of the country – and virtually all of the rest of the world – the fight is a lot less equal. Writers like Coyne (and Nick Lane, author of our other book, Life Ascending) drastically misstate things when they so casually refer to the theory of evolution by means of natural selection as “an established truth”: the idea isn’t even countenanced in vast swaths of the Middle East, it’s buried under tidal waves of resurgent religious revivalism in every country in South America, it’s warped beyond recognition in doctrinally schizophrenic places like Russia or China, and even in the United States and the United Kingdom, a large and growing segment of the population responds to every poll by saying they’re pretty sure all life on Earth has a Creator with a capital ‘c.’ The only places where evolution is an “accepted truth,” anywhere in the current world in which we live, are the campuses of liberal arts colleges and the laboratories and archeological digs of scientists. The rest is book-burning, crowd-shrieking, crusade-and-jihad-embarking fundamentalism, and what might ultimately be worse: comfortably middle-class doctors, lawyers, and of course school teachers who kind of like the idea of a 6000-year-old Earth. That’s one hell of a clown.

Lane addresses this more forcefully than Coyne, at one point invoking the ‘d’ word directly:

Evolution has no foresight, and does not plan for the future. There is no inventor, no intelligent design. Nonetheless, natural selection subjects all traits to the most exacting tests, and the best designs win out. It is a natural laboratory that belittles the human theatre, scrutinising trillions of tiny differences simultaneously, each and every generation. Design is all around us, the product of blind but ingenious processes.

But even this seems distressingly pat (not to mention unhelpful, since a creationist could hardly write “There is no science, no evolution” with more complacency), and when Lane writes things like this, he seems genuinely unaware of how easily it can be mocked and subverted by people with even a modicum of preparation. Evolution has no foresight, you say, no plan for its future – but it somehow knows which design is ‘best’ for winning out in that future, and neither Lane nor Coyne seems at all alarmed by the fact that science hasn’t even managed to discard the terminology of creationism. Both books busily assemble success stories for Darwin’s theory, especially revolving around one of that theory’s key pressure points: transitional forms. If, as natural selection insists, life-forms have been constantly evolving over time, the fossil record should be littered with intermediary forms – something clearly half-way, say, down the road to becoming a rhino, or a rabbit, or a bird. Evolutionary scientists can talk all they like about how fragmentary the fossil record is just in general, how it’s not like turning to the appropriate page in a phone book, but the minuscule number of religious faithful who ever even bother to think about evolution (or who are allowed to) will need only the pervasive absence of such forms to turn away from the concept altogether. So it’s important that they be there – and it would help if science could predict they’d be there. Coyne has an example:

If there were lobe-finned fishes but no terrestrial vertebrates 390 million years ago, and clearly terrestrial vertebrates 360 million years ago, where would you expect to find the transitional forms? Somewhere in between. Following this logic, [University of Chicago biologist Neil] Shubin predicted that if transitional forms existed, their fossils would be found in strata around 375 million years old. Moreover, the rocks would have to be from freshwater rather than marine sediments, because late lobe-finned fish and early amphibians both lived in fresh water.

Shubin concentrates on Ellesmre Island in the Canadian Arctic as having the right exposed freshwater sediments, and he finds his transitional form, – but it takes him five years of constant looking. So much for littered. Accidents, as more than one critic pointed out, look pretty much like this.

Likewise that favorite bugbear of Intelligent Design proponents: irreducible complexity. What about the biological constructions, they ask, that cannot be rendered any simpler without being rendered utterly non-functional? How could such things as eyes or wings have evolved, when they seem to need to be exactly the way they are right from the start in order to exist at all? “Of what use is half a wing?” Coyne writes,

Ever since Darwin, that question has been raised to cast doubt on evolution and natural selection. Biologists tell us that birds evolved from early reptiles, but how could a land-dwelling animal evolve the ability to fly? Natural selection, creationists argue, could not explain this transition, because it would require intermediate stages in which animals have just the rudiments of a wing. This would seem more likely to encumber a creature than to give it a selective advantage.

The current thinking – that theropods developed into celebrated and apparently transitional forms like Archaeopteryx (or similar tiny forms discovered China with what look like prototypical feathers) – fails to explain why all these transitional birds have feathers in the first place, since at that stage they couldn’t have helped in actual flight. Insulation, even in tropical climates? Mating displays, the last hail-mary of the desperate? Where did these proto-feathers even come from? “The best guess,” Coyne offers, “is that they derive from the same cells that give rise to reptilian scales, but not everyone agrees.” But maybe everyone should, before you start talking about splendid victories. There are plenty of people in the world who don’t feel they need to guess such things at all – their faiths tell them all they need to know. Coyne is sympathetic toward the origin of such certainties:

Everywhere we look in nature, we see animals that seem beautifully designed to fit their environment, whether that environment be the physical circumstances of life, like temperature or humidty, or the other organisms – competitors, predators, and prey – that every species must deal with. It is no surprise that early naturalists believed that animals were the product of celestial design, created by God to do their jobs.

But he’s only willing to take his sympathy so far. The truth is still the truth, and Darwin’s still the guy who thrust it upon the world:

Darwin dispelled that notion in The Origin [of Species]. In a single chapter, he completely replaced centuries of certainty about divine design with the notion of a mindless, materialistic process – natural selection – that could accomplish the same result. It is hard to overestimate the effect that this insight had not only on biology, but on people’s worldview. Many have not yet recovered from the shock, and the idea of natural selection still arouses fierce and irrational opposition.

What Coyne (and many other hopeful popularizers, including Lane) doesn’t seem to realize is that the ‘worldview’ (read: religion) now threatened by the mindless, materialistic process of evolution has faced other mindless, materialistic processes before in its long history (Stoicism, for the early Christians, and the concept of the Wheel of Fortune all during the Middle Ages, and whatever the heck Buddhism is) – it’s not as if the denotation of clockwork has ever discouraged the connotation of watchmakers. The religious communities of the world – in which most of the current inhabitants of the world currently live – aren’t still reeling from the shock of finding The Origin of Species for sale at their bookstore, though it would be pretty to think so. Instead, they’ve taken it in stride, just a bump in the road to Damascus, and their more scientifically inclined adherents are doing their doctoral training not in seminaries but in biology labs. Those adherents have long since learned the language of their enemies, including that key status of prediction as a scientific validator. Coyne writes about the haphazard innards of our basic blueprints:

Now that we can read DNA sequences directly, we find that species are also molecular palimpsests: in their genomes is inscribed much of their evolutionary history, including the wrecks of genes that once were useful. What’s more, in their development from embryo, many species go through contortions of form that are bizarre: organs and other features appear, and then change dramatically or even disappear completely before birth. And species aren’t all that well designed, either: many of them show imperfections that are the sign not of celestial engineering but of evolution.

But so-called “Intelligent Design Theorists” (like Stephen Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell, a creationist apologia that has received ample coverage in the secular press) take satisfied pronouncements like “including the wrecks of genes that were once useful” and make their own predictions. If the human genetic code really were intelligently designed, they say, they predict, then regardless of appearance, those genetic wrecks must actually be serving some purpose. And if that then turns out to be true – and it has turned out to be true, dozens of recent tests indicate those wrecks regulate all kinds of cellular functions – celestial engineering hops right back up on stage and starts fiddling with that palimpsest. Suddenly, the entirely useless eyes of blind cave-dwelling salamanders aren’t that at all – they’re just entirely useless so far as we can presently tell. It opens the door to endless speculation – and closes the door on a Creator who makes mistakes, or changes His mind.

Why Evolution Is True, despite being a handy and lively overview of evolution, is full of such worrying backhanded invitations to theocratic absolutism. Life Ascending is a far funnier, far more engaging book on basically the same range of subjects – it’s another non-academic overview of the current state of evolutionary science and thinking – and sometimes that very linguistic glibness ends up working against Lane’s underpinning contention that the natural world is a void of levers and pulleys. Lane not only embraces the language of intention, he jokes about embracing it:

Thermodynamics is one of those words best avoided in a book with any pretence to be popular, but it’s more engaging if seen for what it is: the science of ‘desire’. The existence of atoms and molecules is dominated by ‘attractions’, ‘repulsions’, ‘wants’ and ‘discharges’, to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to write about chemistry without giving in to some sort of randy anthropomorphism. Molecules ‘want’ to lose or gain electrons; attract opposite charges; repulse similar charges; or cohabit with molecules of similar character. A chemical reaction happens spontaneously if all the molecular partners desire to participate; or they can be pressed to react unwillingly through greater force. And of course some molecules really want to react but find it hard to overcome their innate shyness. A little gentle flirtation might prompt a massive release of lust, a discharge of pure energy. But perhaps I should stop there.

Perhaps, but he doesn’t. All throughout Life Ascending, he flirts with the very concepts he considers anathema, summing up the incredible, unlikely complexity of modern life-forms far more evocatively than he summons up any scientific explanation for them. Partly this is no doubt the fault of popular science writing in general; it’s always easier to describe current fact than current speculation, since speculation is most often done by small parties of extremely specialized savants. This is especially true in the field of neurophysiology, where the mechanics of how our brains make us who we are is still only poorly understood (by those who claim it needs understanding, that is – the rest, the vast majority of people on Earth, would tell you the questions are pointless). In typically reader-friendly fashion, Lane paints a picture of the complexity:

For us to experience all of this [the world] consciously, moment by moment, as some kind of multimedia show in the head, requires the conversion of all the digital dots and dashes into a perception of the ‘real world’, with all its sights and smells. And then, of course, we don’t perceive this reconstructed world as being inside our head, but we project it all back out again to where it belongs. We seem to view the world from a single cyclopean aperture in the front of the skull, which is quite obviously an illusion. Plainly all this involves a lot of neural jiggery-pokery.

But again, he skates right over the fact that “jiggery-pokery” almost explicitly calls for a brain to be doing the poking. Both these books (and they’re by no means alone – the seminal texts of the “New Atheists” abound with it too) show the particular kind of smugness that people only tend to show to opponents they believe are down for the count. There’s a general underlying feeling of the cocky walk, the turning away from a downed foe because no further danger can come from that quarter. Sure, both Coyne and Lane seem to be saying, there might be occasional weird radar-blips like that trial in Dover, but for the most part, it’s ascending truth after ascending truth, with no real counter-argument going on anywhere. This, of course, couldn’t be more false.

When we were growing up, it was a squat little book called The Evolution Cruncher by Vance Ferrell. This book was in every church library and in the homes of almost every churchgoer, and the wide dissemination wasn’t hard to understand, given the marketing strategy printed on the book’s back cover:

Everybody needs this book. Sell it to them for 400% profit on every book! In small boxfuls of 16, this is the lowest-priced wholesale book, of its size, in America. Hand out copies free. Give it to students in school. Let them start learning the truth. They urgently need it!

And The Evolution Cruncher was packed to the gills with truth, good old-fashioned Sunday buffet American Protestant truth, on every single permutation of Darwin’s theory. This book was written, its facts assembled, in a white-hot passion that makes the serene self-assurance of books like Coyne’s and Lane’s look foppish – and possibly doomed. It doesn’t matter that every single “fact” assembled in books like The Evolution Cruncher is somehow or other wrong, it matters that they appear to be right:

Deep in the ocean there are little shrimp-like creatures with very complicated compound eyes. Their thousands-of-eyes-within-an-eye all come to a focus at one point, just as ours do! Well, the scientist that discovered that mystery did a little further study and discovered even more astounding facts: (1) He found that some of those deep-sea shrimp have “lens cylinders” which bend the light smoothly (because of smoothly varied refractive surfaces) to focus on that one point! (2) And then he discovered that others use a “mirror system”! This includes a double-corner bounce which is complicated in the extreme!

A Shrimp is supposed to have figured that out? With abilities such as that, NASA ought to hire some of them to help design better telemetry systems in moon rockets.

We have here the work of a Designer who used complicated mathematics to figure out the angles and, then, designed the structure, using equally complicated physics and chemistry.

Popularizers like Coyne and Lane might argue with such adamant assurance; they might try to reason with it, try to sidestep it, or even archly mock it (although neither of their books goes that far) – but they’d be wise not to turn their backs on it, even for an instant. Despite what its academic champions would like to believe, Darwin’s teachings aren’t quite the bright new star shining in the firmament that they tend to assume. Rather, evolution – indeed, the whole notion that science can be used to define or explain anything – is far more fragile in this brutal, stupid world. It’s the light of only a few hand-held candles, and it must be carefully shielded against the winds that blow all around it. Those winds are aimed at that flickering light, and they’re aimed by forces that can see quite well in the darkness that would result if that light went out.

Ben and Terry Soderquist are Open Letters freelancers living in Lewiston, Maine.

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