100 Years of Drift, Part 2: the evidence mounts
The evidence mounts: glacial striations, coal in Antarctica, and the distribution of dinosaurs (and others)
It’s been 100 years since Alfred Wegener proposed his idea of continental drift. Today’s blog continues the story we began yesterday – the tale of Wegener’s life and the development of his grand idea of mobile continents. This time, we’ll look at the significance of fossils and climate and how these contributed to the drift theory.
By 1900, most geologists and biologists accepted Darwin’s description of species evolution. Darwin noted that the offspring of various creatures, isolated from each other and exposed to different environments, evolve into quite different beings with the passage of time. For example, bison arose on the American plains while the wildebeest fills a similar ecological niche in Africa. Both form huge herds, mostly survive by grazing (eating grass and seeds), but also by a little browsing (munching on the odd shrub). Both animals have manes, wild beards, and both look like trouble.
But you would…
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Darwin vs today’s creationists; Eugenie Scott in Glasgow
Lady Hope; Darwin on religion; varieties of creationism; creationist activity in UK; Petition 1530; Intelligent Design and the varieties of creationism; the eye; continental drift and biogeography; Mendelian inheritance; ancestry of whales; varieties of creationism; the “missing link”; Q&A
This is my personal selection from the talk that Genie gave to the Glasgow Skeptics on Monday February 15, as best I recall it. I thank her for a copy of her slides, and any misinterpretation is entirely my own fault (I have added some comments of my own in parentheses).
the title of the talk was: “What Would Darwin Say to Today’s Creationists?” The answer is just this:
“Haven’t you been paying attention during the last 156 years?”
Lady Hope and the myth of deathbed conversion
The first thing that would surprise Darwin if he could come back to life today would be the legend of his death-bed confession, to a certain Lady Hope, of reversion to Christianity and renunciation of evolution. Lady Hope is real enough. An evangelist and temperance crusader, she was a colleague of the philanthropist James Fegan, who ran a mission to London’s street urchins. Fegan corresponded with Darwin, who in 1880 gave him permission to use the reading room at Downe House for his work, and it seems plausible that Darwin and Lady Hope might have met around then.
In 1915, we have Lady Hope being reported at a Baptist revival meeting as having said that she spoke with Darwin in his death bed, and that Darwin had confessed to a love of scripture, and to regretting things he had said when younger. More specifically, that as a young man with unformed ideas he had thrown out suggestions that to his surprise spread like wildfire. (I note that Darwin in his autobiography confessed to an initial love of Paley’s natural theology, and in The Descent of Man to surprise at the speed with which evolution had been accepted, and remarks of this kind may be the seed of Lady Hope’s account.) In 1915, Lady Hope was over 70, so knowing how memories are reworked, and how stories grow in the telling, we can see how the totally false story that we have today could have arisen without conscious mendacity.
Darwin’s religious views
As for Darwin’s own views, he referred to belief in the punishment of unbelievers as “a damnable doctrine”, and may well have turned away from the idea of a benign deity after the death of his dear daughter Annie. (However, if I understand his Autobiography correctly, he continued to regard “this immense and wonderful Universe” as more than the product of mere chance, and eventually retreated into agnosticism only because he regarded the matter as beyond human understanding; I have discussed this here, and how more sophisticated modern creationists misdescribe his views here) .
Young Earth and other varieties of creationism
Darwin, who was a geologist before he became a naturalist, would be very puzzled by Young Earth creationism, since in his time the Churches accepted (and churchman geologists contributed to) the geological column and the implication of many millions of years. Young Earth creationism and “creation science”, as a claimant to speak for mainstream Christianity, only arose in the mid-20th century. “Creation science” needs to account for the plain facts of geology, and does so in extraordinary ways, asserting for example that the entire Colorado Plateau, successive strata with a depth of over a mile, were laid down and drained within a year by the waters of Noah’s Flood. Hence creationists’ obsession with the Coconino Sandstone, whose texture and cross-bedded structure (as known since before 1945; see here and references therein) are characteristic of a wind-blown desert dune, and their extraordinary attempts to rationalise the claim that it was laid down under water.
Creationism is invariably associated with religion, and with those schools of religious thought that place great emphasis on the sanctity of a particular text. (Since such texts are ancient, they could hardly do other than adopt a creationist viewpoint.) Darwin probably never considered Islamic creationism, Turkey (despite still being a great European power) being seen as remote and exotic. Acceptance of evolution seems to vary widely throughout what one might call the Muslim world, but is a worryingly low 35% in Turkey. Turkey is home to the prolific publicist Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya), publisher of the Atlas of Creation, which attempts to deny that evolution has occurred by comparing present-day forms with fossils. The Atlas’s scientific methodology, however, leaves much to be desired. Its “caddis fly” image is a photograph, not of an insect, but of a fishing lure. (I fear the problem of Muslim creationism may be deep-seated and widespread. I have written about the emerging alliance between Intelligent Design creationism and conservative Islam in Scotland, while in 1985, the then nominally secularist Turkish Government invited the Institute for Creation Research to help draft the school curriculum.) In the UK, according to a Theos/Comres 2009 survey, only 37% of those surveyed said that humans are the result of purely naturalistic evolution, 28% said we are the result of evolution according to God’s plan, 11% believed in evolution guided by divine intervention, and only 17% embrace separate creation. (The authors of the Theos report on the survey, themselves, describe evolution as “uncontestable”.)
There are varieties of creationism. Young Earth creationists accept biblical chronology, and think that present and extinct species coexisted. Old Earth creationists accept versions of the scientifically agreed chronological sequence, but regard each stage as a separate phase of the Creator’s activity. Guided evolution accepts common descent, but treats successive changes as the result of divine intervention (perhaps by intervention at the molecular level). Intelligent Design considers mutation as a random process, and, neglecting the role of selection, improperly infers that it cannot generate meaningful novelty. (In the US, Intelligent Design advocates are generally Old Earth creationists, but in the UK leadership and allies are more often believers in a young earth.)
Creationism in the UK and its opponents; the current Petition
Creationist bodies are very active within the UK. Creation Ministers International has a UK branch (which caused furore by sending a speaker to the publicly funded St Peter’s Academy in Exeter, a mistake by the school that will not be repeated). There is Truth in Science (which sent copies of the creationist pseudo-text book, Explore Evolution, to every school in the UK), and others. Various bodies, such as Skeptics, Humanists, and the British Centre for Science Education, actively work to restrict their influence, and the Scottish Secular Society’s Public Petition PE01530 (with which regular readers will be very familiar) aims to keep creationism from being presented as valid in schools.
The eye, continental drift and biogeography, Mendelian inheritance, the ancestry of whales, and the mythical missing link
Darwin would have been very interested in the direction of creationism in the UK, and the revival of the design argument, which he regarded as refuted by natural selection. When he considered the eye as a structure that at first appeared too complex to have arisen naturally, he pointed out that it could have arisen from a photosensitive spot, through a directional cavity, to an enclosed structure whose fluid would concentrate the light, and eventually, via the development of the enclosing membrane into a lens, to the complexity of the mammalian eye in its present form. We now know that all these imagined stages are actually evident in molluscs.
He would have been delighted by continental drift, which solves long-standing puzzles in biogeography. Biogeography is one of the most convincing arguments in favour of evolution. It explains, as separate creation can not, why the flora and fauna of continental islands are closely related to those of the adjoining land mass, while those of oceanic islands are restricted and exotic. And yet, how come there were marsupials in Australia and in South America, but nowhere else? (North American marsupials crossed from the south, after the relatively recent closure of the isthmus between the two continents). We now know that marsupials appeared when present-day Australia, Antarctica, and South America were joined together in the supercontinent of Gondwanaland, allowing migration of marsupials from their original South American home, and indeed marsupial fossils have been discovered in Antarctica.
He would also have been delighted to learn of Mendelian genetics, which solve the “dilution problem”. Under blending inheritance, a favourable variation would appear in less intense form in the offspring of the favoured individual, but genetic inheritance avoids this. Instead of the character being passed on with half the intensity, it is passed on with the same intensity to half the offspring.
Darwin was ridiculed (still is, by particularly ignorant creationists; see here) for speculating that the behaviour of a bear swimming with his mouth open to catch prey was a clue to the ancestry of whales, which clearly are mammals. Yet within the past 40 years, we have accumulated detailed fossil knowledge (free access review article, from which the image below is taken, here) of all the intermediate stages linking present-day whales to their even-toed terrestrial ancestors. This is part of a general phenomenon. Darwin famously lamented the gaps
in the fossil record, and present-day creationists echo these laments, as if they were still warranted. Thus they commonly repeat a remark made some decades ago, to the effect that all known human ancestral fossils would fit onto a small table. Not any more. The human fossil record is now so rich, that we have more specimens of the relatively obscure species Homo habilis than we have of Tyrannosaurus rex.
So the scientific record (including much not even touched on here), ever since the publication of On the Origin of Species, has been one of steadily reinforcing the central concepts of common descent, and of natural processes driving evolution.
What, then, would Darwin set to today’s’s creationists? Simply this: “Haven’t you been paying attention during the last 156 years?”
Q: Is there a risk that so uncompromising a talk would put off those sympathetic to creationism?
AS: I would not give this talk to such an audience. There are those whose identity is bound up with creationist religion, whom I cannot hope to reach; those uncertain, to whom I would present the arguments for evolution; and those, like tonight’s audience, who need no convincing.
Q: Are creationists dishonest?
A: Most ordinary creationists are either misinformed or muddled. The higher echelons go through considerable mental contortions, but I have no reason to doubt their sincerity.
Q: How can we respond to those who consider “Goddiddit” a satisfactory explanation?
A: Science is highly valued socially and culturally. So any ideologue tries to recruit science. Hence “creation science,” and devices like imagining the speed of light to have been much higher in the past, so as to allow light from galaxies billions of light years away to have reached us within 6,000 years. “Creation science” is a procrustean bed, on which all observations are distorted until they fit the initial biblical assumptions.
This is contrary to the key moral value of science which is the admission of fallibility. Science as process depends on critical examination and revisability. We need to impart this, not by telling but by showing, and showing by asking. The dandelions on our lawn have short stems, but those over there have long stems. Why might that be?
1] This idea of overall cosmic design is of course the very opposite of the kind of piecemeal meddling that goes by the name of “Intelligent Design theory” today.
(2] Theos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, making it anathema to some exponents of evolution. I have argued that such doctrinal purity is misguided.)