Friday, September 02, 2005

Stoopid Monkey!

A lot of stuff about the whole ‘intelligent design’ versus evolution seems to have been flying at me lately. Kato’s article, magazine articles, things on TV. Never being one to not stick my oar in, here’s my 2 cents (or considering the usual length of my posts, my dollar fifty).

I saw a show on the God Channel where a ‘minister’ (read ‘money grabbing televangelist’) apparently put the final nail in the evolutionary theory’s coffin by stating “If we descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys today? And none of them are giving birth to human babies!”

This got raucous applause. Obviously he’d hit the nail on the head. Argument over. Let’s see the Darwinists argue against that.

Unfortunately, for anyone with half a brain, all this statement proved was that this guy knew nothing about evolutionary theory at all, and completely missed the point.

For the sake of this guy, and anyone else out there who wants to know (that’s right, you two in Switzerland), here’s Evolution 101.

First of all, no matter what Patrick Stewart says at the start of X-Men 2, there are no huge leaps forward in evolution. Evolution is an ongoing process that takes literally billions of years. That’s why monkeys aren’t giving birth to human babies.

People who believe in ‘intelligent design’ state that because all living creatures are so suited to their environment, there must be an ‘intelligence’ behind their design. However, when looked at scientifically, the reason everything is so suited to their environment is purely down to evolution.

Let’s have an example.

Look at a giraffe, possibly one of the strangest land animals on the planet, an animal that has one major defining feature…its neck. A neck that allows it to get its food from up high in trees. A giraffe with a short neck wouldn’t last long, it quite simply couldn’t eat. However, this is nothing to do with an ‘intelligent creator’.

Let’s step into my Paulius Brand™ Time machine and go back a few billion years. You’ll notice that there are a few giraffe-like animals, but without the long neck.

Now thanks to natural mutation, sooner or later, one of these giraffe like animals is born with a slightly longer neck than the others. Nothing drastic, maybe an inch or two. Bear in mind that this happens all the time today. Some people are born tall, some are born short, some are born big and stocky, others are born slim and lanky. However, in today’s human society, physical attributes don’t have much bearing on your survivability. In this pre-historic giraffe’s world, physical attributes are everything.

In other words, that two inch longer neck allows that giraffe a miniscule advantage over the other giraffes. Quite simply, it can reach food that others can’t. So over a period of time (measured in hundreds of thousands, maybe even million of years), the following happens:

Because the longer necked giraffe has access to more food, it has a slightly higher chance of being successful, surviving and mating. In other words, in a few hundred thousand years, the giraffes that are born with longer necks survive and multiply, while the shorter necks slowly die out. The shorter necks find themselves increasingly surrounded by giraffes that are better suited to their environment than they are. The genetic code that grows that longer neck is passed down to the giraffes offspring. This continues until all giraffes have that slightly longer neck.

Then, before long, a giraffe with a slightly longer neck is born, and the process repeats. Each time the existing animals find themselves in competition with animals that are better at surviving than they are.

In short, a longer neck gives the giraffe access to more food, meaning its chance of surviving is slightly better the shorter necked giraffes. The process repeats and repeats until we end up with the giraffes we have today.

Now I once explained this to someone who said:

“That’s rubbish! If that’s the case, why didn’t their necks keep growing…and why aren’t our necks that long if it’s such a useful trait?”

In that case I just shook my head and walked away, but for you good people, I’ll explain.

Once a giraffe can reach the top of the tallest tree in their environment, a longer neck stops being an advantage. In fact it becomes a disadvantage. It takes a lot of energy to pump blood up that long neck to the head, and the neck reduces mobility and has a whole host of other disadvantages. For necks of a certain length (IE, the length they are today), the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Once you go past that, the long neck becomes more of a liability…meaning that giraffe has a lower chance of survival than the ‘regular’ giraffes, and its line dies out.

As for why humans don’t have huge long necks, quite simply, we’re omnivores. We don’t rely on leaves from trees as our primary food source. Instead we developed sharp colour vision, and among other things intelligence.

In other words, we went down a different evolutionary path. Instead of getting longer and longer necks, we slowly got smarter and smarter. A slightly smarter caveman discovered fire, toolmaking etc. While our lesser developed cousins were chasing prey on foot, we slowly discovered that a stick, a vine and another sharpened stick meant we could kill prey from a long way off, using less energy, not exposing ourselves to danger, and killing more food.

Basically, a monkey did not just one day give birth to a human child, they slowly developed into us. That there are monkeys today does not prove evolution wrong, it just shows that at one point the species broke in two, one following one path, the other following another. It’s possible to have two successful evolutionary paths side by side.

The best example of two evolutionary paths side by side is in humans today. Let’s examine one trait…skin tone.

There is a pigment in your skin called melanin. The more melanin you have, the darker you are. Melanin is useful, because it resists sunburn. Now humans that evolved in cooler climates like Northern Europe have very little use for melanin. Quite simply, they aren’t exposed to the sun enough to require a lot of it.

However, humans that evolved in much hotter climates like Africa, need a lot of melanin. A few million years ago, a human type creature gave birth to another human type creature that had slightly darker skin. It wasn’t effected by the sun as much, so could spend longer hunting. Again, it was better suited to its environment. It gave it a better chance of survival. Like the giraffe, this continued until the only surviving human type creatures, in that environment, all had huge amounts of melanin in their skin.

In cooler climates, a human type creature born with more melanin that the rest of the human type creatures gains absolutely no benefit from it whatsoever.

It’s the same with the monkeys. One race developed intelligence, and over a few hundred million years left the forests, learned to make clothing, which rendered thick fur obsolete, and became human.

The other race did not develop intelligence as rapidly, but were still well suited enough to their environment to survive.

In short, Evolution comes down to one thing. Adapt to your environment or die. That’s why monkeys exist today…they just adapted in a different way. They evolved the ability to survive in their environment, whereas we evolved the ability to change our environment to suit us.

Basically, in nature, everything is in competition with everything else. Food, shelter, territory. Creatures born with an ability or trait that gives it an advantage over the other competitors thrives, whereas their competitors without the advantage die out. Then, within the ‘winning’ group, more traits develop that either help or hinder, and the competition starts again.

It’s happening right now. Evolution isn’t something that happened, it’s something that’s happening.

However, I don’t believe that the biggest debate in the Darwinism – Intelligent Design debate has anything to do with science. Intelligence brought with it one fatal drawback…arrogance.

Once we learned to think and developed language, we started to see ourselves as above ‘petty animals’. They still live in the trees, jungles and oceans, whereas we became ‘civilized’. In other words, the idea that one of our ancestors lived in a tree, and pushed berries up his nose, just doesn’t sit well.

I hate to break the news, but humans are animals to. We’re very evolved, advanced animals, but animals none the less.

We have a habit for believing what’s attractive. Often ignoring the facts when they conflict with our superior world view. It’s far nicer to believe that the most powerful being in the universe created us in his own image, and created everything else, just for us… rather than believe that in some way, we’re related to those creatures who throw their own feces at us when we look at them in a zoo.

For example, Victorian models of the universe show the Earth, and us along with it, right at the centre of the universe. Everything else revolves around us. We’re obviously such superior, enlightened and devine beings that it’s quite right that we’re at the centre of the universe, and everything revolves around us…after all the universe was created for us…right?

However, once it was discovered that the Earth was certainly not at the center of the universe, and (Shock! Horror!) that we orbited the Sun, instead of the other way around…the theory was condemned as heresy. You could actually be hanged for suggesting it. Scholars of the day had irrefutable scientific evidence that this was the case, but that whisper of a new idea was drowned out by the ear splitting roar of orthodoxy.

It’s a repeating pattern of mankind. We start of as thinking of ourselves as minor deities, until a theory shows that we’re not quite as important as we first thought. The people who suggest these theories are persecuted, and in some cases, flat out murdered. Then the evidence becomes so strong that people absolutely have to believe it. Then another theory comes along, and history repeats.

Yes, I’ll agree, evolution is just a theory, but it’s a theory based on observation, experimentation and above all, hard science. It’s a theory that best fits the evidence at hand.

That’s the difference between science and religion. Science creates a theory, then does everything it can to disprove it. If it can’t be disproved, it becomes the generally accepted explanation until new evidence comes along.

Science changes the theory to suit the evidence. Religion ignores or twists the evidence to keep the theory intact.

It’s a singularly human trait that we will continue to believe something that has been proven to be false, simply because the truth is not as attractive as the fantasy. Why believe that we’re descended from apes, when you can believe that we were created by a God in his own image? Why believe that we’re insignificant specks on a ball of rock in a backwater section of the universe, when we can believe that we’re right at the center, and the most important things in the universe?

A scientist could prove that evolution is a cast iron fact, and he would be ridiculed, persecuted and made a laughing stock by the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd, without a single one of them even listening to his evidence, or even accepting for a split second that they could be wrong.

However, if that same scientist said he had proven, once and for all that there is a God, he definitely exists, and certainly created us in his image, he would be lauded as a hero, again without a first glance at his proof.

That’s humanity for you. We’ll believe what’s attractive, regardless of the evidence…and refuse to accept what we don’t like, even if the evidence is staring us in the face.

Evolution hasn’t ‘finished’, it’s an ongoing process. In about a billion years, humans will have evolved to the point where we wouldn’t recognize them…and you know what? There’ll be one entity, probably consisting of energy and pure thought that will say:

“There’s no way in hell that we’re descended from (shudder) humans! Eew, just the thought of having arms and legs, and communicating by flapping a tongue instead of telepathy. Don’t get me started on the whole orifice thing. Anyway, there are still humans around today, and you don’t see them suddenly giving birth to us beings made of light!”

If only Darwin had named his book “The Ascent of Man’ instead of ‘The Descent of Man”, all this could have been avoided.


Kato said...

Personally, I'm a Lamarckian. Those giraffes stretched their necks in order to reach the higher branches and then passed that on to their kids. ;)

At one point you say, "Yes, I'll agree, Evolution is just a theory". This is one of the big misconceptions that people have about Evolution, that it's just a "theory". The problem arises from the fact that in the scientific world, the word "theory" doesn't mean the same thing necessarily as it does in the vernacular, as it were. In common usage, "theory" tends to mean "guess" or "hunch". To quote the Wikipedia, "In various sciences, a theory is a logically self-consistent model or framework describing the behavior of a certain natural or social phenomenon, thus either originating from observable facts or supported by them." In scientific terms, a "theory" is not far from a "fact" or "truth", except that in science, nothing is ever considered completely infallible because we can't assume to know everything (i.e. it is always possible that future research or data will require us to modify a theory). There would be less confusion if it were called the "law of Evolution" because the layperson assumes a "law" is immutable (though it really isn't--the law of gravity, for instance, doesn't apply in certain situations which is where Relativity steps in). However, a law tends to describe a single thing, whereas a theory describes something much more complex (often a system).

Kato said...

I tried but couldn't find a picture of Seth Green's "Stoopid Monkey". Oh well.

Invisible Lizard said...

I am somehow reminded of Eddie Izzard, who said: "I am an evil giraffe, and I shall eat more leaves from this tree than prehaps I should, so that other giraffes may die."