Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Evolution, Imperfectly Grasped

I've read Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hutchins. Their books are brilliant, entertaining, and logical confirmations of everything I have already concluded about evolution and religion -- namely, that evolution makes a lot of sense, and the best thing you can say about religion is that it's unnecessary, and sponsors some great architecture.

But I'm always open to challenges to that conclusion, provided the challenge meets the same standard of being brilliant, entertaining, and most crucially, logical. So, as I was driving home and heard on the radio about a religious discussion of evolution happening that very night, no more than a kilometer from my home, I went.

It was at Central United, a beautiful old church located on, I'll go with, the second-nastiest intersection of downtown Calgary. The church and a group called Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Canada hosted a colloquium called "A Game of Chess or a Game of Chance: Religion's Perspective on the Theory of Evolution."

I want to say right up front to the people who organized the event, and especially to the speakers, thanks for doing so. It makes me think that you are of that special breed of religious people who tolerate, perhaps even enjoy, discussing your religious ideas with people who disagree with them. I hope I'm right because I'm going to do quite a lot of disagreeing tonight.

Now. I don't think the format would have allowed any speaker to provide the kind of challenge I was hoping for, if were he able. It would take too long, and require far too much backtalk from me. I must say, though, that the forum did give the three speakers and the host ample time to showcase some fundamental misunderstandings about evolution. So I'm devoting this column to things I heard tonight that made me wish there was a fourth panelist, representing "People who know a lot about evolution." These are some things that, if you want to sit behind a placard like that one, you absolutely can't say. I am paraphrasing these, not quoting, and if any of the speakers want to clarify or disown these, I look forward to the exchange.

The speakers were Dr. Eliezer Segal, a Jewish professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, Michael Ward, pastor of Central United, and Atual Wahid LaHaye, who is Islamic, and whose credentials I do not have handy, due to a last-minute change that leaves him off the leaflet I'm reading right now. The host was CBC Homestretch host Jeff Collins, who is Catholic. Incidentally, I don't think their religions had very much to do with what I'm going to describe as flaws in their understanding of evolution, just as there must exist many religious people who know more about evolution than do I, an atheist.

And, one very last disclaimer -- it occurred to me many times this evening to wonder how much of the unease the religious feel towards evolution could be alleviated by a better understanding of it. It's in that spirit which I present this list of misunderstandings:

1. Evolution is an ascension towards humanity in its current form. Mr. LaHaye remarked with amazement that of all the directions life could have taken, it "chose," at every step, the "right" way. I assume by "right" he meant "leading to humans."

He is correct in saying that there were many ways in which humans could not have appeared, and yet they did. But imagine life had gone a slightly different way at one of those many crossroads, and instead of being a human reading this now, you and me and Mr. LaHaye are all reading, writing, moon-landing velociraptors.

We would not now be saying, "Aw crap, too bad. Life really blew it. We're all supposed to be humans. I guess there is no God." No, velociraptor Dr. LaHaye would be saying that the course of life towards the ultimate goal of velociraptor production proves the guiding influence of a God who, for some inscrutable reason, favors velociraptors. And velociraptor me would be saying, no, wait, imagine if ... well, you get the idea.

My dad, Wayne Brown, once dressed this up another way. He advanced his own personal notion that all of human history was a struggle to produce Wayne Brown. You need WWI because it led to WWII, leading to his parents meeting, leading to his birth. Of all the possibilities, there he is. Clearly, then, the universe is engineered towards this magnificent end result, Wayne Brown. Believe it or not, when he made this point, it was in response to me, making nearly the same argument you made tonight. And boy, did I feel silly.

It's just the old anthropomorphic principle. If you exist, you are not allowed to be surprised to find yourself in a universe that permits you to exist. It is so basic and obvious an objection that I'm a little embarrassed to raise it.

2. Life on earth is a progression towards complexity. This idea is closely related to the humans-as-ultimate-goal idea, and refuted just as neatly by the anthropomorphic principle. But there is further objection to be made, because it's untrue in a slightly different way.

Stephen Jay Gould -- whose name came up, actually -- illustrated this very well in, I believe, Wonderful Life. The simplest form of life that can be called life at all is bacterial. By no coincidence, bacteria is also the oldest form of life, because however difficult it was for life to get started with something simple, it would have been a lot harder to start off with a giraffe. So, ultimate simplicity is both the starting point, and the obstacle beyond which evolution can create nothing much simpler. But it is free to expand in the other direction, towards complexity. Not a progression. An expansion. The starting point, the bacteria, remains intact and central.

If life favoured complexity, you would expect at some point to see no more bacteria. But bacteria, by every measure, are the dominant form of life on earth. By number, of course. Most definitely by longevity. Even by sheer biomass, they physically outweigh humanity, and most likely, outweigh all non-bacterial life combined. By importance, we would not survive a day without them, yet they would be just fine without us. Whoever it was who described them tonight as insignificant should tell that to his own digestive tract.

You would also expect to not see five mass extinctions in the fossil record which, each time, wiped out the most complex species on Earth, but which the bacteria barely noticed.

It is only when your notion of life contains prejudices about some species being "higher" (read: more humanlike) and others lower that bacteria become insignificant. Sure, when it comes to being humanlike, we humans have it down. But shuffle that stacked deck, and it becomes clear that, as Gould wrote, this was, is, and always will be the Age of Bacteria. It is we who are freaks on fringe, the upstart and wholly unproven complexity-centered approach to survival. If we survive another four billion years, perhaps then we can wonder if maybe life was hoping for us all along. But not yet, and even then, bacteria will be up to eight billion and going strong.

3. Evolution can't explain the origin of life. Mr. LaHaye brought this up, referring to a textbook he saw somewhere showing a DNA strand floating in a "warm little pond." The DNA somehow turns into a cell, and then the cell becomes an armadillo, or something. He said, I think correctly, that the first step, the DNA floating around by itself without anything living, could never happen, and that the textbook is lying. You can't have DNA, so far as we know, without a living thing to make it, and you can't have a living thing, so far as we know, without DNA.

It is a conundrum, that's for sure. If you want to say God did it, OK, your choice. You'll have a problem when people less easily mollified figure what really happened. Or maybe they never will. Or maybe they will, but they'll reveal a deeper and more troubling mystery which you can then attribute to God, for a while. I prefer Carl Sagan's response when asked for his "gut feeling" about whether aliens existed. "I try not to think with my gut," he said. "Really, it's OK to reserve judgment until the evidence is in."

You are right, then, to say evolution can't explain the origin of life, but wrong if you think that's got anything to do with the theory. The problem is, evolution from the very beginning has always acknowledged this inability to explain the origin of life. Darwin's book is called the Origin of Species, not the Origin of Life. Mutation and natural selection is all about how one species becomes another. It has nothing at all to say about how you get life started in the first place.

In fact, the very language you hear in this objection, the "warm little pond," came not from the Origin of Species at all, but from a letter Darwin wrote to the botanist William Hooker in 1871. It was purely speculative, Darwin himself in the letter called it a "big if." He was wondering whether the beginning of life might be a process that could repeat in an environment where it had already happened before. The big if, in his letter, is the scenario itself -- the origin of life starting out in a warm little pond. If such a pond were around today, he said, you couldn't expect another origin, because whatever the pond produces would be immediately eaten by the previously-originated. Now, that's actually a pretty astute speculation. Note, too, that it's not actually even a speculation about the origin of life, but rather, about whether or not it could originate again.

And this speculation on the origin of life, written in a letter to a friend, is not to be confused with Darwin's theory on the origin of species, written in the book we're actually talking about. Confusing one with the other is like saying Led Zeppelin was a lousy band because they wrote "Hot Dog." It doesn't hurt Zeppelin in the mind of anyone who knows any song besides "Hot Dog," nor anyone who knows that "Hot Dog" is not actually too bad a song, merely less good. But it's poisonous to the speaker's perceived intellectual honesty.

The complexity of life implies a designer, just as a watch implies a watchmaker. Mr. Ward and Mr. LaHaye seemed to have a firmer grasp of cellular biology than do I. I wish that were a higher compliment than it is. But we can all agree that life, even in its simplest bacterial form, is still flabbergastingly complex. Mr. Ward said that his appreciation of this complexity has deepened his appreciation of God. Mr. LaHaye said that such complexity could not exist without a plan.

There are entire books full of objections to this idea, but I will bring up just a few that spring to mind.

I find something very troubling about Richard Dawkins's objection: The designer is always more complex than the thing being designed. So if complexity is the problem, you can't explain it with a designer who, by definition, must be many orders of magnitude more complex than the thing designed, which in this case, remember, is the entire universe. As I said, it's a troubling and seemingly circular objection. I feel the question needs a complicated answer, and when it's so deftly defanged with such a simple one, it's a disappointment somehow, like a big title fight won by knockout in the first round.

More satisfying, I think, is to look at all the ways that life, if designed, is ridiculous. Have you ever had a good look, for example, at a flounder? You know, that fish that swims at the bottom, on its side, with both eyes on one side of its head, so it's always looking up with depth perception? Flounders aren't going to win any beauty contests, that's for sure. If I were designing a fish, even stupid non-omniscient me could do a lot better. I'd make the eyes and fins symmetrical, for starters. It would see and swim better that way. But if, rather than being designed, the fish started out swimming right-side up, and just ended up swimming sideways, then the flounder make sense. The flounder, in fact, is a living, breathing, transitional step.

The human eye is a better-known example. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay on it, I think Dawkins and Hutchins both brought it up, because creationists love it. It's so beautiful, so seemingly purposeful. The problem is, it's built totally backwards, with the blood vessels on the surface instead of behind the retina. But that too is you'd expect it, if it were instead the product of intermediary steps starting out with a light-sensitive membrane. And every step along the way is, in fact, alive and seeing today, and therefore not so impossible as a transitional step far back in our history.

(Those transitional steps, by the way, Mr. LaHaye, are well-documented, both about the eye and almost everything else. Your insistence that there are no intermediary steps in the fossil record, from anything to anything else... well, as my father once said, you're entitled to your erroneous opinion. It would be nice of you to refrain from teaching it to kids, though, until they're informed enough to debate you.)

Darwin says humans descended from monkeys. Dr. Segal brought this one to the table. To be fair, he was quoting a different religious philosopher named Raphael Hirsch, who I'd never heard of until then. I failed to find the quote in context for this blog entry, and at any rate, I'm not sure whether Segal believes it himself. His eloquent presentation was about religious thinkers who found ways to accommodate science within their religion. But anyway, it's a mistake that demands ridicule wherever it is found, and in whatever context.

Darwin never said humans descended from modern apes. We're related to modern apes. We and they both descended from a common ancestor. Monkeys, by the way, diverged earlier. Apes are like cousins. Monkeys ... I don't know, second cousins twice removed or something, that you only see at weddings and funerals.

It seems like a niggling point placed against these other problems, but I think it's important because it may be the source of problems many people have with evolution. You go to the zoo, you see an orangutan scratching his bum or whatever he's doing, and think, well, I certainly didn't come from that! Apes do things that aren't very polite. Chimpanzees, for example, are territorial. If you, a chimp, wander into the wrong chimp neighborhood, other chimps might gang up and kill you. Did you know that? They also like to fight en mass once in a while, and the winners get to rape the losers' mates. Lucky humans never do anything like that, right?

If Darwin had ever claimed that modern apes were our forefathers, I guess I can see how that might bother people who have a vested interest in feeling superior to animals. After all, aren't we supposed to be having dominion over them? But what he actually said was that we have a common ancestor. And that's probably true about everything that lives. Posit all the refinements you like between them and us. Declare, if you must, that we are intrinsically superior to them. No problem. I don't think such a declaration would be very wise, and I would challenge such a pronouncement in other ways. But don't bring Darwin into it. The Origin of Species and the theory of evolution do not contain any particular challenge to that notion.

Evolutionists say it's all just random chance. The very "Chess or Chance" title of the colloquium belies this misconception. I can see how it might be more satisfying to think of life as a plan rather than a random, chaotic jumble, though satisfying doesn't not necessarily mean correct. But anyway, Darwin didn't say it was random. He said it was non-random natural selection, extracting the fittest for survival from random mutation. Now, sure, Gould's refinements have given us a new appreciation for role of chaos in evolution. But worry about that after you've fully understood that natural selection is to randomness as a Lamborghini is to a tank of gas.

Evolution is just a theory and should be taught as such in schools. Two out of three panelists agreed on this at the end. Just in the last ten seconds, it was the very last question: Should evolution be taught in schools? Dr. Segal said yes so fast that I missed it, I am saying this now in an edit only after he wrote and corrected me. I find that comforting, since he is in fact, a teacher. However, Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Ward agreed that it needed to be taught as just a theory.

Well, fine. It's a theory. An exhaustively researched theory, fundamental to our understanding of life. And yes, it's still being refined. Gould must be clawing his way out of the grave right now to object to all the times his brilliant theory of punctuated equilibrium has been used to "demonstrate," as Mr. LaHaye did tonight, that even scientists can't agree whether evolution is true.

They can agree. They might say there is a lot more to be understood about it. But you won't find any prepared to argue that evolution is not fundamental to an understanding of life, and that natural selection and mutation are not important in the process. And they'll say, if you really press them, OK, you're right, it's still a theory. So is gravity. But you aren't up there demanding we teach kids about intelligent falling, right?

The three religions represented tonight have the benefit of having final Word on everything, right there in a conveniently amorphous book. I don't understand why it isn't a problem that they have three different books, but never mind. If you hope to see the same finality on anything in science, you're in for a long wait. Science is handicapped by the need to be exact, and to test everything, and to throw out any theory not supported by the evidence, and to never run out of new evidence.

And even when science does get all its ducks in a row and manages to say, look, based on everything we've figured out so far, here's how we think things work -- well, that's no guarantee that religion's going to give up the fight, is it? As the very subject of evolution so brilliantly demonstrates.

- DB