One of the consolations of the education business is the insight you gain from it. Good thing, too, because you often don’t gain much financially. The old adage “when you teach, you learn” actually sometimes applies. Too often it is a lesson involving how frustrating education can be, but out of this frustration comes even deeper insight. Case in point.
Last week I had the opportunity to relay some basic wisdoms involving the history of science. The material was a broad, general survey, intended for a distinctly inexpert audience. Cosmology, paradigms, technology, medicine, etc…In among this material was some brief discussion of Darwin and his impact on modern biology. It was the first time teaching this material in the last few years that I ran across a determined and vociferous critic. And, my, the things I learned. Most people I’ve run across who challenge Darwin’s theories are lackluster in their enthusiasm to criticize. They give up easily, or perhaps just don’t care to continue the debate after a few pointed remarks.
But this was different. The student in question offered up a host of reservations regarding her thought, and made me realize how entrenched this anti-Darwinian critique can be. And yet, what I learned was that most of the arguments offered up can be responded to quite well, and in many cases just reflect a lack of understanding. When you lay it out and respond to them separately, it becomes clear one of the reasons people attack Darwin and his ideas is because, quite frankly, they don’t know a damn thing about the history of science. So, without further ado, let the lesson begin…
Darwin didn’t have the fossil record to back up his theories.
Yeah, not so much. True, Darwin lacked a fossil record extending far beyond the 500 million year (my) ago mark, which troubled him, but it was the very existence of fossils that prompted reflections about the origins and development of life on earth. Finding fossils of aquatic animals on mountaintops may have been explained by reference to the Biblical flood, but this was a dubious and unsatisfying rationale long before Darwin. Moreover, it was the appearance of certain fossil animals, like the dinosaurs (one of the first was Iguanodon, discovered in 1822) that led people to speculate that living things were not now as they had been at the moment of creation. And if that was the case, then how indeed had they “evolved”? The idea that there are gaps in the fossil record and that this is an argument against evolutionary theory is silly. Of course there are gaps! Fossilization is a rare process. Even the modern fossil record is but a window on an immense construct of living development. Most living things that ever lived, as Darwin notes in Origin, left no trace of their existence. And yet they lived…
Evolution provides no proper explanation for the origin of life.
Fair enough. Lacking the sophisticated understanding of organic chemistry developed in the 20th century, Darwin could only offer speculations about the origins of life on earth, thinking perhaps that it arose in “a warm little pond” providing the right conditions for life to occur. And yet, I would argue that the explanation for the development and transformation of species through the process of natural selection doesn’t necessarily require a connected explanation for the origin of life. Perhaps, as suggested by some, like the physicist William Thomson (aka Lord Kelvin) in the late 19th century, life came from outer space, an idea outlined in the theory known as panspermia or exogenesis. More likely, it was just a happy accident. The famed Miller-Urey experiment conducted in 1953 suggests the whole process may not be so “miraculous” after all. With the added ingredient of time, all known variations are possible, even probable.
How can evolution account for the amazing complexity of life, and in particular, things like human consciousness?
Time, my dear, heals all wounds. It can also account for just about any development in living things. We’re talking here about lots of time. Inconceivable to the human mind time. Years, decades, centuries, millennia…Tens upon thousands upon millions upon hundreds of millions of years. Time beyond time. With this factor, the move from simple single-celled organisms to the human mind is not only comprehensible, it might be said to be inevitable. According to recent refinements of Darwin’s thought, like the notion of punctuated equilibrium offered by Stephen Jay Gould, long periods of stasis and stability may be altered by an “exogenous” shock to the system, resulting in sudden, swift, and dynamic change and new species and adaptations.
Other criticisms of complexity are ably answered by the concept of emergence, a philosophical argument suggesting that living things are distinct from other causal systems in so far as they develop new characteristics not anticipated based on existing conditions. Life, in other words, is emergent and makes up its own rules. This seems also to be a fairly convincing argument for the development of consciousness. Other arguments involve the realization that we may not be so special as humans — that other advanced mammals have the capacity for language, planning, self-recognition, etc…Admittedly, we are different. But how exactly remains unclear and is often deeply obscured by preconceptions and cultural bias.
If evolution is a given, where are all the missing links? Moreover, can it be that we “evolved” from the higher apes?
This is one of those deep misunderstandings. It comes from embedded notions of living things being organized in a hierarchical fashion. The classic idea of this is the great chain of being, a concept often repeated in the Western tradition. But this hierarchical notion implies a progressive development of species, towards more “complex” organisms, by definition. It also implies an understanding of evolution as a kind of “plastic” transformation, the kind of change described by Lamarck, who introduced the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This is the “stretching neck of the Giraffe” model of evolution, and is just plain wrong. Species don’t change in this manner, they change through individual fitness and by passing on random genetic mutation.
As such, species may be related to one another, but only to a degree and not in any clearly linear way. To understand evolution is to appreciate, as the philosopher Henri Bergson suggested, the idea of life actually growing into itself, what he calls “duration” and describes as “the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances.”
One could go on, but that seems a perfect place to end the argument. In case you suspect I penalized the student for her stubbornness, I note that she got the highest mark in the group!