Category Archives: Evolution

With or without the Creationists, evolution continues apace

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.

Fall of the Titanosaurs

If I had it all to do over again, I might well have gone into paleontology. Like most kids, I grew up fascinated with dinosaurs. Then “real life” got in the way and you need to get a job since you can’t spend your time playing with your cheap plastic toys and dreaming Triassic dreams. There’s no future in the past. So I decided to study dead languages instead. Still, the recent discovery of Patagotitan mayorum is exciting. Titanosaurs—the really big dinosaurs—were not even known when I was a child. What we used to call “brontosaurus” was about as big as they got, but we did know that diplodocus was out there somewhere, even a bit longer. We didn’t have to worry about ark space in those days because we knew that extinction happens.

The current evangelical flavor of the day takes a hard line on evolution. Since it absolutely can’t happen and since there’s no denying dinosaurs, they must’ve crowded onto old Noah’s floating hotel along with everybody else. The problem is we keep discovering more and more large dinosaurs. Patagotitan was 122 feet long, without skin. It weighed more than ten elephants, making me wonder about water displacement ratios. Depending on your definition of that fuzzy measure of the cubit, the ark was only 450 feet long. And Patagotitan is only one of the titanosaurs that dwarf the already huge apatosaurus (the correct form of brontosaurus) and brachiosaurus. Even if they hibernated the sheer mass of reptilian tonnage wouldn’t leave much room for the latter ascendant mammals. That is, if mammals had come later and ascended.

Noah, despite being a traveler, never made it to Patagonia. In fact, the ark pretty much stayed still during the flood, coming to rest in Turkey after having been constructed somewhere just east of Eden. And since the Bible doesn’t mention continental drift we can’t even rely on Pangea to have gotten all the beasties to ark central on time. I’m guessing that Patagotitan was probably a slow walker. Since the continents were just like they are today, it must’ve been a fair swimmer as well. And it didn’t mind quarters just a touch claustrophobic for such a massive monster. What with all the home improvement shows these days, Noah might have considered an addition to the ark. But the Bible says God gave him the plan and one thing we know about the Almighty is that what he says he means literally. Dinosaurs or no.

Water Bears

Since we should all be busy planning on alternatives to planet earth, my mind has turned to tardigrades. Known as “water bears” these very simple animals are amazingly complex. Don’t go looking for them in your drinking water, however. They’re microscopic. So why am I thinking about tardigrades at a time like this? Because they’re one of the few organisms that scientists believe could actually survive the destruction of the planet. Who knows? They might even be able to survive in Washington, DC. Maybe that’s why they’re in The Washington Post.

You have to look closely to see one.

Able to cling to life at the cusp of absolute zero, in conditions with no oxygen, and at doses of radiation that would leave the human race—among most other species—fried, these micro-organisms are truly remarkable. No wonder scientists are playing with thought-experiments as to how to wipe them out. Hey, scientists are only human after all. Don’t worry—nobody’s really trying to kill these little guys off. The question behind Ben Guarino’s story seems to be what makes these tiny creatures so amazingly resilient. It raises an issue that I often ponder. The will to survive. Evolution is, according to standard theory, without purpose. Natural selection works in a “logical” way: the most successful organism survives long enough to breed and its traits become standard options in the next generation. Nobody needs to want anything (except to mate) and chance takes care of the rest. But that doesn’t explain the will to survive. The “eye of the tiger,” if you will. I’m sure this wasn’t what the Washington Post was intending to trigger, but doesn’t it seem strange that even “non-conscious” micro-organisms “want” to survive?

The desire to exist is dangerous territory. It has a whiff of the divine about it. One of the characteristics of life, if my high school biology isn’t completely outdated, is the ability to reproduce. What it didn’t address, for fear of teenage snickers, I’m sure, is the desire to reproduce. Why does life insist on its own continuation? Is it truly just an eons’ long succession of one-night stands that results in creatures capable of even asking that question? Or is there something more to it? Tardigrades have segmented bodies, legs, and claws. All at less than 40,000 cells per individual. They lack a neocortex (which doesn’t necessarily disqualify an individual from being president). They can’t answer the questions we put to them. As individuals they are remarkably easy to kill. As a species, however, their resilience carries the answers to some very deep questions. If only we had the will to ask them.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.