Monthly Archives: March 2013

Bears, whales, God, Darwin, and Peter Hitchens (Part I)

Can bears turn into whales? Peter Hitchens (PH) asks this question in two successive instalments of an anti-evolution tirade of the kind that gives ignorance a bad name. Normally I would not have bothered with such nonsense, especially since Jerry Coyne at WEIT has already dismembered what with PH passes for reasoning in greater detail than it deserves. However, PH does raise an interesting question or two, and makes one assertion is so breathtaking in its combination of arrogance and ignorance that I cannot forbear from discussing it. Let me deal with these matters in turn.

The first question is, can bears turn into whales? The suggestion is based on a remark by Darwin, in the first edition of On the Origin of Species, which he dropped it in later editions as being too speculative. However, PH still chooses, over 150 years later, to cite it as evidence that Darwin’s whole research programme, and by implication the entire structure of the life sciences as they have developed since that time, is really very silly. As to why we all indulge in such silliness, PH’s answer, which I will analyse later, is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

The answer to the question, by the way, is no. Of course, no presently existing species is capable of evolving into another presently existing species, any more than PH is capable of evolving into his late lamented brother, nor would Darwin ever have suggested such a thing. If we rephrase the question a little more precisely, do bears and whales share a relatively recent common ancestor, the answer is still no. Bears do in fact share a relatively recent ancestor with seals and walruses, but their last common ancestor with whales was back in the Cretaceous.

The obvious question then arising is this: if whales are not related to bears then what are they related to? Forty years ago, we didn’t have a precise answer to that question. Now we do, and PH could have found it easy enough, just by looking up whale evolution in Wikipedia. And while PH is understandably concerned about erroneous assignments, since the only fossil he seems to know about is the Piltdown forgery, Wikipedia will also provide him with a list of 43 separate extinct families of precursors of modern whales. But perhaps PH is a Wikipedia snob, or perhaps these articles, replete as they are with terms like “artiodactyl” and “cladogram”, are above his technical reading level. In the latter case, I would refer him to an excellent National Geographic article; in the former to either of two recent but more technical reviews, here and here. I will be writing about whale evolution at much greater length elsewhere, showing as it does a beautiful coming together of three separate lines of evidence; from the fossil record sequence, from anatomical homologies, and from molecular phylogeny.

My point here is a rather obvious one. PH admits that he is ignorant about evolution. Nothing to be ashamed of there. After all, he is a busy man, and has his own priorities, and if he can’t find the time to learn what kind of place the natural world is, and how we fit into it, then that’s his own business. But what he should be most deeply ashamed of, is his decision to write, not once but twice, about such a subject without first bothering to inform himself.

Despite his self-proclaimed ignorance, PH claims to have penetrated the motivation of the scientific community in its acceptance of what he describes, in rather simplistic and old-fashioned language, as “the theory of evolution by natural selection.” What he tells us of this theory is that the motivation is fundamentally theological, or rather, anti-theological. To quote, “I will re-state it, yet again. It is that I am quite prepared to accept that it may be true, though I should personally be sorry if it turned out to be so, as its implication is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.” [My emphasis]

So this is a clear statement of what PH considers to be the purpose of the theory; not to make sense of nature, as we scientists pretend, but to prove the truth of atheism. Well, questions of motivation are always interesting, if difficult to settle, but in this particular case we happen to be in a position to decide the truth or otherwise of PH’s claims. The theory of evolution by natural selection was first clearly formulated by two separate individuals, initially working independently, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. We know a great deal, in both cases, about their attitudes to religion, and Darwin in particular has left us a detailed description of how his views changed over time, as a result in large part of the evidence that he collected while developing and testing his theory. Both these great scientists changed their opinions on religious and spiritual matters during their working lives. Neither developed their theories in pursuit of a theological agenda, and if they had done so, that would have amounted to professional malpractice. The reality is very different, much more interesting than anything PH could have imagined, and we will return to this in the next part.

Unintelligent Design updated

My friend Keith Gilmour has just updated his delightful Centre For Unintelligent Design website. All the old favourites are there, together with numerous new examples, and revealing correspondence with those strange people who insist on believing that our ramshackle bodies, and indeed our ramshackle Universe, are the products of intelligent design. I should mention that the equally praiseworthy Oolon Colluphid,  here and here, has played Wallace to Keith’s Darwin (or do I mean Darwin to Keith’s Wallace?) but Keith’s self-referential design principles, and wonderful correspondence with creationists, are irreducibly complex and original.

The examples are arranged higgledy-piggledy, but fall readily into a few distinct categories. There are cosmological examples; why all that wasted space and time? Then there are examples such as disease caused by pathogens. These merely show that if the Universe is intelligently designed, it is not so designed for our benefit; if I wanted to make a plausible case for intelligent design, I would point to the complex life cycle of the malaria parasite, or the liver fluke, but for some strange reason Intelligent Design advocates never seem to do this. Finally, and most importantly, there are examples of design defects that can only be explained by reference to our or some other species’ evolutionary history. And that, of course, is the whole point. Intelligent Design advocates, almost without exception, seek to deny that we have any evolutionary history at all, preferring to imagine that we were supernaturally handcrafted. If so, the site leads us to ask, why are our eyes back to front, why do our sinuses fail to drain, and while there are no doubt good reasons why there are two sets of nerves to the larynx, why does one of them have to loop round the aorta and back up again, a distance (if you happen to be a giraffe) of around 20 feet? And 142 other examples of this kind, ranging in severity from the end-Permian extinctions to acne and halitosis? And, all joking apart, why do we give birth through the pelvic girdle, with all that implies in the way of maternal pain, death, and brain damage to the innocent newborn? (One contributor asserts that there are people who justify this by quoting Genesis 3:16, but do such moral monsters as this really exist?)

Last but not least, there are updates on correspondence with those who persist in believing in Intelligent Design. One highlight here is where the social constructivist Steve Fuller, while describing himself as an atheist, refers us to the literature on theodicy in order to repudiate the claims of unintelligent design. (If you don’t know – and why should you? – theodicy is a branch of theological apologetics, devoted to proving that nothing is ever really God’s fault so He has nothing to apologise for). Another is the head-on attack by Alastair Noble, of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (yes, there is such a thing), on Keith’s analogy between Holocaust denial and creationism. Since Dr. Noble frequently and forcefully insists that Intelligent Design has nothing to do with creationism, we must wonder why these comments attracted his attention. We have Glasgow’s own Jonathan McLatchie telling us that “that ID is not committed to interventionalism”. Clearly we have underestimated the preternatural capabilities of the intelligent design process, which can make things happen without a natural cause and now, we learn, without even intervening. And of course, anybody who is anybody has been attacked by Casey Luskin, and Keith is no exception.

I do have some criticisms. A few contributions (not, I suspect, Keith’s own) show evidence of trying too hard to show off, or of very specialized preoccupations. Who, I wonder, came up with “Dialect differences between the genetic codes of mitochondria, chloroplasts, and the eukaryote cell nucleus hindering optimum migration to the nucleus of mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA”? And how many people in the world really need to bother about the problems facing a coeliac Pastafarian?

I also think Keith cheats a little. Many of the diseases listed are the result of dietary deficiencies. Do these really qualify? After all, we can’t survive without food, so is it really a defect that we can’t survive without the vitamins and minerals normally present in food? And many are the result of foreign invaders; bacteria, viruses, worms, and so on. From their point of view, we are very well designed indeed. Our brains provide wonderful niches for toxoplasma, our livers for liver flukes, and our intestines for tapeworms. Along with the exquisite external environments we provide for lice, mites, and fleas, and other visitors. If we would only give up our narrow anthropocentrism, and learn to see things from the point of view of these our guests, we might find such design features completely admirable. After all, if our immune systems were not so easily fooled or subverted, myriad creatures as diverse as the AIDS virus and the guinea worm would find life very hard indeed.

So maybe, despite Keith’s examples, our own corner of the Universe actually is intelligently designed. Not for us, perhaps, but for parasites and pathogens, bacteria and bedbugs.

This post has now also appeared on the 21st floor website 


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