Category Archives: Evolution

With or without the Creationists, evolution continues apace

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Why Horror?

Some people wonder why I like horror. Well, “like” is hardly the proper verb here, I’d rather go the passive route—why I’m compelled by horror. That fits better. But isn’t compel a transitive verb? What’s the object? It really depends on the circumstance—compelled to read, watch, or look at. Quite apart from grammatical imponderables, I keep finding myself coming back to horror and I frequently wonder why. Mathias Clasen may have answered that question for me. Why Horror Seduces is a fascinating study that considers biological and psychological explanations for why we’re compelled to watch or read or play horror, even when we find it distasteful. And it’s not just excusing bad behavior!

As fairly weak creatures that are prey as well as predators, human beings have always placed a high value on security. We’ve driven most of our predators to extinction, but we still have other people to worry about. And microbes. And things that come from space. And, after all that, we still die. These are, realistic or not, things we must face. Horror allows us to confront them and assists us in considering “what would I do if…?” Clasen delves into an evolutionary theory of horror—we’ve evolved to need it. Negative emotions are some of the most ancient, leading us to self-preservation in a hostile environment (something our own government is teaching us anew even now). Watching or reading how people cope in such settings provides us with valuable information. In other words, horror is a learning opportunity.

From that perspective, it doesn’t feel so bad to have written a book about horror movies. I’m participating in the long struggle of humankind against forces that are out to get us. As with most things evolutionary, we need not know why we do them for the whole thing to make sense. Our brains reward us for behavior that is conducive to survival—we like to eat, sleep, and reproduce. Reward centers in our heads go crazy. Then we go to the theater to see the latest, greatest horror film. What may seem counterintuitive here is that we are engaging in a similar kind of activity to other atavistic survival techniques. Watching these movies, reading these books, (and for those who do so, playing these games,) has a basic biological utility. Who knew? And once I get brave enough to crawl back out from under the bed, I may feel better about myself for admitting I like horror.

Devolving Apes

It would be difficult to overestimate the effect the movie Planet of the Apes had on me as a child. Raised a biblical literalist, evolution was, naturally enough, anathema to me. And yet here was a movie based on the idea that evolution had taken a different course. It was a transgressive film, but the screenplay had been written by Rod Serling, so well known for his trusted work on The Twilight Zone. I was utterly fascinated by it. Until the most recent iteration, I’d seen every sequel, spinoff, and reboot ever made. So important was this story line that as a child I found a copy of the book, in English, of course. Pierre Boulle told the story somewhat differently. Spying the book on my shelf after some four decades of my own evolution, I decided to read it again.

We all evolve. I noticed the improbabilities more this time through. The fact that, unlike the movie, humans wore no clothes at all must’ve scandalized my young eyes. I would’ve agreed, however, with Ulysse Mérou’s sentiments that humans were created in the image of God, not apes. In fact, there is an undercurrent of a somewhat conservative theological outlook here. Humans may experiment on animals, but when it’s reversed, it’s evil. In many ways, the cinematic version improves the story, but Boulle’s telling grows in intensity as the novel unfolds. Mérou develops a moral sense that includes the apes as well as human beings. The story, of course, is largely about prejudice and its evils. In that respect, it’s timeless.

As a child I realized that we lose something if we accept the fact of evolution. We lose that special feeling of having been intentionally created by a deity that made us God-shaped. Ironically, I also came to realize that those who rejected evolution often treated their fellow humans like animals. They held onto prejudices against other “races.” They castigated the poor for being lazy. They wish to remove healthcare from those made in the image of God. The contradictions and cruelties simply don’t comport with the Good Book they adore and ignore. Evolution, with the realities of nature impinging on our security, is far less dangerous than what biblical literalism has evolved to be. I can’t say why this book and its cinematic renditions became so deeply embedded in my young mind. But having read the book again, it’s pretty clear that the ideas have remained there, even as they have modified, with descent, over time.

Milkweed and Honey

I’ve never thought of bugs as an ethical concern. Well, not directly anyway. I had some truly frightening encounters with insects and arachnids as a child, so I tended to avoid bugs when I could. At times, I hesitate to admit, I took advantage of my size and smooched them. I did, however, mature out of that. Many years ago I stopped killing bugs that got inside, choosing instead to favor capture and release. I’d trap them in one of a variety of empty peanut-butter jars we kept around the house expressly for that purpose. The imprisoned intruder is then escorted outside and released. It seemed the only fair way to handle the situation—I don’t believe in exploiting size, and hating things with too many legs is prejudicial. Then I heard that insects are dying out.

Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Instead of bringing glee, this instilled a kind of panic. According to a story in the Washington Post, scientists have noted a 75% drop in bug biomass over the past several years. Stop and think about that. Insects contribute so much to our lives that we barely pay them any mind. Everything from pollination to breaking down decomposing organic matter, bugs do it. We need our insects. As with most things these days, it seems that we humans are the likely culprits. We destroy habitat, we spread pesticides everywhere, we try to take all kinds of land and make it in our own image. And we’ve sacrificed our insects along the way. As the article states—driving around country lanes on a summer night doesn’t bring up the windshield splatter that it used to. I stopped to think about that. It seems to be true.

The tiny members of the animal kingdom do a tremendous amount of work. I know they’re not doing it for us, but the things they do we don’t have to—and oftentimes can’t—do. All fruits and vegetables are pollinated by insects. Honey has been the main place where some of this shortage has been felt most directly. Bees have been disappearing. So have monarch butterflies. The fact is, we can’t live in a world without bugs. This does make it an ethical issue. If we’re going to claim dominion over all things we have no right to overlook the smallest creatures. Sure, they can, well, bug you. They fly in your face or bite you while you’re sleeping. They’re only doing what they evolved to do. I don’t mean to bug you about it, but we need to look after the minuscule and vulnerable among us.

Learning to Evolve

Not to beat a dead hadrosaurus, but creationism is in danger of driving us extinct. On a visit to the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, I picked up a copy of Warren D. Allmon’s Evolution and Creationism: A Very Short Guide. Although I’ve read plenty of books on the subject, a refresher is never a bad idea. When it came to statistics, though, it grew scary. The majority of Americans do not accept evolution, despite all the evidence for it. What’s even scarier is that a large percentage of physicians—particularly Protestant ones—do not accept it either. Allmon is writing for a local readership, but these issues are quite large. World-wide, in fact. One thing most scientists don’t understand is that “religion” isn’t to blame. Literally reading of texts is.

Were it not for the creation myth in Genesis 1 there would be no conflict over evolution in Christianity or Islam. The question comes down to how one understands a sacred text. Many religious believers can’t get beyond the basic issue of if it took more than six days to create the world then that house of cards called biblical truth collapses. There’s a panic involved here. A very real and visceral fear that heaven itself is on the falling end of the balance. No amount of scientific reasoning will help with that. Hell is just too scary. And reason tells us that reason can’t solve this dilemma. Those raised religious by caring parents can’t believe that Mom and Dad would teach them wrong. Emotion plays a stronger role here than reason. More Kirk, less Spock. When even a majority of high school science teachers feel that “teaching the controversy” is okay, we’re in trouble.

Allmon’s book is well-intentioned. Of course, it was written before the post-fact world evolved. The stakes for not accepting reason (think Trump) are extraordinarily high. Having a figurehead that doesn’t accept rational explanations for what the educated can see plainly encourages widespread copycat ignorance. In the rational world there is no doubt about evolution. Most mainstream biblical scholars and clergy accept it. Don’t try to convince others with an argument, however. This is a matter of belief. Allmon does point out that science can’t speak to non-physical processes. It can say nothing about God. But a certain book can and does. Had it been written in modern times none of this might have become an issue. Until we realize the power of that book, we’re going to continue to struggle to come to grips with simple facts.

Trees, Please

One thing we know about nature is that we don’t know much about nature. We can be a pretty self-absorbed species. Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is a good corrective for that. When we’re young we’re taught the difference between plants and animals. What Wohllenben shows is that such differences are more a matter of degree than we realize. Trees move, but slowly. Their timescale can be vast, compared to our brief, get-rich-quick outlook on life. It has been demonstrated pretty clearly that trees communicate with one another. They help one another, and they can, in their dendritic way, think. They cooperate with fungi to maintain connections between their root systems. Trees might even have what we would call personalities, were they fortunate enough to have been born human.

In a little like a medieval fantasy world, Wohllenben is a German forest keeper. He knows trees and their ways intimately. The trick, of course, is that we have a difficult time seeing things in timeframes that exceed our own. There are living trees that are 9,000 years old. That’s before the Sumerians ever showed up to invent writing. In human eyes, a lot has happened since then. And although we don’t know how to define consciousness, we’re sure that it’s limited to our species alone. Grudgingly we may admit some “higher” animals to the club, but our predilection for conquest of our world would be sorely diminished had we not other creatures to dominate. Looking at the world through a sympathetic lens, however, the fact that we’ve evolved these traits from the common ancestor we have with the animals should tell us something. As Wohllenben points out, animals diverged from plants at some stage, but we do ultimately come from the same stock.

Even on a practical level, we can’t live without plants. No matter how gourmet our foodies may be, our nutrition cycle begins with plants photosynthesizing food from pure light. There is perhaps a danger in recognizing our kinship with trees too closely. We depend upon them for food, shelter, warmth, and the oxygen we breathe. We might be inclined, as Wohllenben notes, not to use them at all. The key word here, however, is exploitation. We evolved along with plants and other animals and we all rely on each other. We are all connected. We should care for those with whom we share the planet. Trees have a much longer view than we do. When the desires of one species set the terms for all the others, we soon feel the pain of the trees.

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.