I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, September 03, 2011

Are there holes in the theory of evolution?

A few weeks ago, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry referred to evolution as "a theory that's out there." There is nothing in his political history to indicate that he believes the theory to be accurate. Does this disqualify him from being president in my eyes? Probably not. Unlike, say, global warming, a politician's thoughts on evolution play a fairly trivial role in shaping political policy. There may be a few decisions around the margins about funding some vaccine or another, or permitting genetically modified crops, where it would be nice to have a president who has a firm grasp on the latest biology. Aside from this it seems like there isn't a lot of damage to be done. I'd vote for a candidate who believed life was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster if they could show me a plausible tax policy that would address this nations long term economic problems.

However, some on the right are apparently worried that Perry's views might be too much for a majority of voters. In response, right wing pundit Ann Coulter has taken the interesting approach of writing two columns lately attempting to prove that the theory of evolution has gaping holes in it. Worse, it is treated as gospel by an unthinking media, and never debated, so that the truth can come out showing that scientific facts actually disprove evolution and support intelligent design.

I thought I'd address a few of her points:

1. There's a media conspiracy not to question evolution:

First, I don't think there is such a thing as "media conspiracy" in the modern age. If you google "holes in evolution" you get 58 MILLION hits! It's being debated and challenged all the time. If none of the challenges gain traction, it's because none of them do as nice a job of explaining the biological evidence around us. But it's crazy to say that the challenges are hidden or supressed when anyone with a smartphone is ten seconds away from reading about the subject. Perhaps by "media" Ann means "television." Even Fox News doesn't run nightly debates on the topic the way they do about, say, global warming. But, global warming is a topic where getting the answer and the policy reactions right could decide the futures of whole nations. Under react to a genuine problem, and we might give our grand children a very ugly future. Over react to a phantom problem, and we might give our grand children a very ugly future. It's a high stakes debate with serious consequences.

Evolution, not so much. Let's pretend that, tomorrow morning, every biology professor in the world woke up and suddenly decreed that, oops, they've been wrong, and intelligent design is a better theory than natural selection. How would this affect our foreign policy? Our energy policy? Tax policy? While I advocate believing a good theory over a bad theory for purely intellectual reasons, I honestly don't think my daily life would be affected by a massive paradigm shift. It's just not worth devoting endless hours of television to the topic.

2: There are gaping holes in the fossil record. Every day, some "truth" about the fossil record is overturned by new evidence.

Well, duh. That's the thing about science. When you find evidence that you might be wrong about something, you present it, and alter your theories accordingly. You don't insist that the Piltdown Man is a genuine fossil after it's been shown to be a hoax. You don't continue to publish that chart showing similarities between embryoes of different animals once it's been proven that the truth had been twisted to fit a theory. Ann points out that the fossil record doesn't show constant, slow change, but instead shows long periods of stability followed by rapid change. Darwin believed that evolution was a slow, continuous process. But, most modern evolutionists now advocate a theory called "punctuated equilibrium." Basically, evolution slows to a crawl once organism fill the avalable niches in an stable ecosystem. But, eventually, continental plates collide creating land bridges, or an ice age sets in, or a comet smacks the earth, and the stable ecosystems go topsy turvy and explosive evolution follows as organism fill the new niches.

And, there are gaps in the fossil record. We live on a planet that is very good at erasing evidence of past life. The conditions to fossilize every creature that has ever lived simply don't exist, and never have. The picture of the past is always going to be fragmented when it comes to fossils.

However, fossils are only part of the story. A more powerful proof of evolution these days comes from genetics. Genetic trees showing links between animals we didn't believe were closely related have been overturning lineages built by examining fossils. Again, weak and wrongly interpretted evidence is readily tossed aside when better evidence comes along. This is the core of science. Can intelligent design theory point to any similar process for weeding out mistakes? If the flagellum of a given bacteria is self-evidently designed, is a nearly perfect cube of a salt cystal also evidence? Is everything designed? Even diseases and birth defects? Was Mars designed? Was Venus?

3. Intelligent design explains the evidence.

This is probably the saddest argument of all. Let us pretend for a moment that it's true. We develop some new imaging system and discover that, written on the surface of every electron with a very, very tiny magic marker are the words, "God was here." What can we conclude?

I fear the inevitable conclusion would have to be that creation really wasn't about us. The universe is filled with innumerable stars, far more stars than human beings. Our own solar system is filled with far more lifeless planets than places that support life. Our designer, it would seem, has a strong preference for quiet, dead, places. And, when he did get around to designing some life, he spent a very, very, very long time satisfied with single-celled organisms. The amount of time devoted to perfecting algae is impressive. Eventually he got around to making some jelly fish, some worms, some shell-fish. Much much later, he had the idea of crafting a spine, and introducing a new pattern of life to the world. Then, for a long time, he seemed pretty enamored with dinosaurs. But, apparently he got bored and moved on.

Only in the very tiniest sliver of geological time did he get around to creating men. For most of men's history, they were just another ape. A little more proficient at making tools than chimps, a little more complicated in social organizations than bonobos. Then, boom, in the blink of the geologic eye, these clever apes started building cities and writing books and reached a stage where they could debate whether they were the whole point of creation.

I have intelligently designed many books. For us to feel that we are the central focus of some grand designer of the universe is like a single period on page 300 of my novel Bitterwood feeling like it's the whole reason I sat down to type up the story. If we can deduce a designer from all of creation, then we must also deduce that we are, at best, an after thought. We are significant in neither time nor space nor number in the larger picture.

If we use intelligent design to study the universe, we must conclude that we are insignificant in the eyes of a creator. An atheistic interpretation of evolution deduces that there was no creator, and that through some rather remarkable strokes of luck, we've arisen from the background noise of the universe as the first beings ever to be capable of pondering our own existence. I find the latter to be a happy view, and the former to be depressing. And yet, if someone can produce evidence for intelligent design that better explains the world than our current theories, I'll accept it. Truth isn't to be judged by whether or not it makes me feel good about myself. I will gladly accept a difficult truth over a feel-good lie any day.


Mr. Cavin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Maxey said...

Mr. Cavin, an interesting response, though what it has to do about evolution befuddles me. I suspect that this was meant as a reasponse to my post about 9-11. I'm going to cut and paste it there and respond. I think you've offered a valid critique of current American society (though I'll quibble on some details). Still, from your response, it's apparent that I failed to make my position clear, and I appreciate you challenging me. My thinking was muddled and fuzzy in the original post. Let me see if I can bring my point into focus.

Mr. Cavin said...

Oh yes, this was entirely meant to go on the other post. And I believe that we are seeing a hiccup from Blogger itself here, too, what with my never even scrolling all the way down here yesterday. I think I read this post last week. When I was trying to post yesterday, I had a lot of trouble navigating the password protocols, and I think it redirected me haphazardly. Honestly, I've seen this website do weirder things.

Anyway, for clarity I went ahead and deleted the out-of-place comment, and then for more clarity I wrote this.

I didn't mean to come off like I was challenging your opinion particularly, either (in your cut and paste to its proper location, you went to far as to call my comment a "rather thorough attack"). Its just a kind of ranty response to the proceeding ten years of mounting anger and then this latest three days of high-pitched remembrance. I just hung it on your comment, is all. Can't wait to hear your response, but go easy on me. I didn't really pause to consider what I was writing, and it, too, is pretty fuzzy.

James Maxey said...

Mr. Cavin, I fear I didn't go easy on you, though on nearly every point I agreed with your assessment of the current state of affairs. I do want to say that I wasn't in anyway put off or offended by your post. I love to argue! You have my deepest gratitude for helping to give my brain a workout this morning.

Mr. Cavin said...

Oh, don't I know it. It's me that doesn't like to argue all that much--and that's why I have to careful when I comment. I've often thought I should try harder for you, actually. I felt like, in the wake of Greg's death, I was kind of letting you down a little bit by not trying to fight you tooth and nail about everything you say and believe. I know it's important to you. Sorry man.

As it is, I do feel like you went kind of easy on me. I mean, I have to spend a little time crafting a response (maybe later tonight?), but you certainly didn't make me question my understanding of the issues, and that has totally happened in the past.