Nearly six months have passed since our initial exchange. The dust has settled. The tides have shifted, the very planets have elongated their elliptical orbits, and as the world waits with baited breath, I still find myself at a loss for anything even remotely poetic to start with. Perhaps it’s fitting to leave the more scrupulous semantics to Mr. Chevalier since it is his sentiments conveyed in The Backstage Controversy which I’ve come here to debate, today. In deciding a direction with my own response, I was left with a bit of assumptive measures needing to be taken, as it was difficult to distinguish the intentions of the targeted thesis. After much deliberation, it seems Simon proposes the teaching of evolution as fact within our school systems is an extreme disservice to our young people because of a number of questionable issues which challenge the legitimacy of the concept as a whole. To clarify, for Chevalier, it seems not just the misconceptions or inaccuracies of evolutionary evidence past, which detract from proper evolutionary teaching, but rather evolutionary teaching which gets in the way of reality. I’m am here to not only suggest that evolutionists have more than answered these alleged controversies which Backstage so eloquently brings to the table, but also that the issue, even for distinguished theologians, has evolved beyond a debate between evolution as theory or as fact, to its current construct: rationalizing a compatible God in an evolutionary existence.
The Origin of Everything: I want to get this out of the way because in my experience, this seems to be what a significant amount of creationists cling to as reason to ignore anything before, after, or about the word “evolution.” I admit the very notion of cosmological origin is what has steered me away from atheism, towards a vague deism, and I say this openly as an ardent evolutionist. Simply put, no one knows. Anyone who says otherwise is a fucking moron or selling something (speaking of…). But if we want to play the game of explanation, it’s important to note that immediately relying on God does us two distinct injustices:
1) From a rational standpoint, playing the God card for things we don’t yet understand falls into the argumentative fallacy of incredulity, or the argument from ignorance. “Argument A is true because it cannot be proven false. There is a lack of evidence to the contrary.” This is exemplary of what we call a false dichotomy, or the assumption that there is no third option, when a third option is in fact clear and readily available: We ourselves have insufficient knowledge, and thus the argument has insufficient information to be proved either way. Here, the concept of God serves to fill the gaps in our knowledge.
2) To preface, this second injustice is more from personal opinion towards science and the pursuit of knowledge, but the point builds from the first and remains devastatingly relevant. Casting faith in a God as an explanation encourages us to stagnate, to be satisfied with a lack of understanding rather than pursuing enlightenment of the very reality in which we exist.
I don’t want to dwell here any longer, and will leave with one last point. I mentioned earlier my flexible alliance to deism. For those of you too lazy to google, this is a cognizant belief that a God in some way, shape, or form does exist and is the driving force behind the physical laws which govern the cosmos; though there is a lack of personal intervention beyond origin. I clarify my own beliefs to supplement the following point. Whether or not God exists is completely irrelevant to the concept of evolution. We’ve bullied the argument to have two answers, and in doing so we fail to consider the alternatives. I’ll say it again. Evolution as a fact of existence, macro-evolution on the scale of speciation does NOT rule out a supernatural mechanism by which these selective agents operate. Quite the contrary, as God and evolution are completely compatible concepts. If I’ve primed you to be a bit more open to the idea of God and evolution co-existing or even if you were already there, let us move on to the alleged and specific controversies of evolution mentioned in Chevalier’s essay.
Haekel’s Embryo’s: In the mid to late 1800’s, a German biologist by the name of Ernst Haeckel published exaggerated and inaccurate drawings (in various essays, texts, and most prominently, his 1874 textbook Anthropogenie) which showed blatant similarities between the embryos of fish, salamanders, turtles, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and humans, at varying stages of development. The controversy exists because the drawings are, well…exaggerated and inaccurate, manipulated to favor what the author wanted it to: indisputable evidence for evolution, and more specifically, Haeckel’s own extention, the biogentics law: ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. Which is a shame, because, faulty drawings and extension theory aside, the embryos in and of themselves do support the fact of evolution. Yes, there are apparent differences between the embryos, particularly in the beginning stages of development , and yes, Haeckel chose to ignore these differences to suite an agenda. However, even under the parameters of evolution, these embryological differences are expected because the animals Haeckel chose for his model are not of equal relation. To quote Mark Isaac in The Counter-Creationism Handbook (lol but seriously, it’s a good resource), “It is the pattern of both similarities and differences that display patterns of descent. Organisms that are less closely related are expected to look less similar.” What’s most important to distinguish is that modern biology is proving these apparent differences to be superficial; manifesting only in appearance while being molecularly homologous, though this shall be reserved for another essay should the concepts warrant clarification. We’ll see.
Everyone gets so caught up in the conspiracy, they fail to realize what the situation is and isn’t. Haeckel’s immoral tactics still don’t do anything to diminish the vast similarities between other embryological lineages such as mollusks, anthropods, and annelids. We can even jump to the broad classification of vertebrates (that’s us! And amphibians, reptiles, birds, all other mammals, anything with a spine) and our embryos show fundamental evidence supporting common evolutionary history, shared ancestors, a tree of cousinship. For example: Every vertebrate embryo shares physical traits of development: a notochord, branchial pouches, and a post anal tail all forming during what is classified as the phyolotypic stage of embryonic development. (Shut your blinds and feel your ass bone. Just do it! That was a tail for about 4 weeks while you were in the womb; A prime example of human vestigial structures left over from our ancestors! Now wash your poo hands, nasty!)
To close out this point: Did Haeckel rely on immoral practices to promote an agenda? Sure. Do textbooks still using this outdated (by over a century) material need to be discarded or edited to remove or accurately clarify the historical context? Absolutely. Does this do anything to invalidate modern embryological support for evolution or even the very notion of evolution? No and no. Let us trek forward. To the fossil record, ho!
The Cambrian Explosion: The Cambrian Explosion can be defined as the seemingly rapid appearance of most major animal phyla and diversification of multi-celled organisms ever demonstrated in the fossil record, roughly 540 million years ago. The key phrase here is “demonstrated in the fossil record,” and this concept needs clarification. Richard Dawkins perhaps makes the point best, but before we go there, I’d like to take a moment to tell Carlos Hernandez to go fuck himself if he’s reading this now and rolling his eyes at the fact I’m quoting Richard Dawkins. It’s reasonably safe to assume he didn’t make it past the word “evolution,” but I always heir on the side of safety. Carlos, if you are here, you know where to stick it. Please do so swiftly and with harsh intent. Moving on:
“Let us suppose that each individual in our direct female ancestry, from the flowering of many-celled life a little over half a billion years ago, lay down and died on the grave of her mother, eventually to be fossilized. As in the successive layers of the buried city of Troy, there would be much compression and shaking down, so let us assume that each fossil in the series was flattened to the thickness of a 1 cm pancake. What depth of rock should we need, if we are to accommodate our continuous fossil record? The answer is that the rock would have to be about 1,000 km or 600 miles thick. This is about ten times the thickness of the earth’s crust. The Grand Canyon, whose rocks, from deepest to shallowest, span most of the period we are now talking about, is only around one mile deep. If the strata of the Grand Canyon were stuffed with fossils and no intervening rock, there would be room within its depth to accommodate only about one 600th of the generations that successively died. This calculation helps us to keep in proportion demands for a ‘continuous’ series of gradually changing fossils…”
So what should we logically infer, from this information? Most obviously and all other limiting factors aside (there are several), it is impossible for a continuous fossil record to exist, as the rocks of Earth just don’t allow it. That’s all good and well, but we are still left with this monumental task of explaining the unprecedented Cambrian fossil record and the seemingly large jumps to not only a diverse variety of life but also complex structures within these organisms. That’s what is so marvelous about science. We don’t yet have all the answers, but science is working on it. And what we are discovering is making sense for something which just fleeting moments ago, perplexed even the founding minds of evolution. Let’s first take a look at the type of animals which populated the Cambrian era, as they are a key to our understanding.
One of the most consistent traits of Cambrian life, again demonstrated through our fossil record is the existence of hard, shell-like exoskeletons, where no previous, partial step intermediate fossils can be found. On the surface, this can create the illusion of an inexplicable “jump,” in complication which can’t be explained by Darwinian Evolution, but I encourage you to delve a little deeper. Why might animals have developed as such?
Analysis of the Pre-Cambrian era yields some interesting points to consider, most notably the late evolution of active predators, carnivorous worms and arthropods. Read your Darwin and you know better tools in predators yield better tools in prey, and this arms race is perpetual, never-ending, something we document in literally every form of the relationship today. Is it not plausible this late Pre-Cambrian predation ignited the co-evolution of exoskeletons in the form of prey that developed shells as survival mechanisms? We can take things a step further and note these exoskeletons, once developed would have fossilized much easier than their soft-bodied ancestors, certainly yielding more Cambrian era fossils, though to assume more fossils equates to more animals is without justifiable grounds, almost a manipulation of or refusal to acknowledge the information at hand.
The evidence only continues to grow. We now know the Cambrian, though certainly a hot spot for complex life was not the origin of such, as diverse fossil forms are documented nearly 25 million years before the Cambrian Explosion (about 530 million years ago), in the Doushantuo Formation in China. The Doushantuo is one of the oldest fossil beds with well-preserved specimens, and what’s most interesting here is a considerable portion of the complex life discovered have been nearly microscopic. According to J.Y. Chen in Pre-Cambrian Animal Diversity (2000), fossils smaller than .2 millimeters have predated the Cambrian by more than 50 million years, and it’s plausible if not probable their complex descendants would have also been microscopic; the greater implications of which lay in the amount of complex evolution that was just too small for us to see.
There are numerous other evidence based speculations which can contribute to an explanation of the Cambrian Explosion bearing compatibility with Darwinian Evolution: Earth exiting an ice age at the beginning of the Cambrian, the evolution of Hox genes during the Cambrian, significant increase in atmospheric oxygen during the Cambrian, the list only continues to grow in proportion to our evidence. Furthermore, we can look at what animal phyla is dated to the Cambrian, for continued evolutionary compatibility. All Cambrian phyla share common characteristics: They are triploblastic, bilateral, and coelomatical in nature. This is indicative of such body types evolving not completely independent but rather sharing a common ancestry.
There is even documented evolution within the Cambrian era itself, this seen through transitional fossils between anthropods, lobopods, and worms; the middle of which serves as the intermediate between its legged ancestor and legless descendant. Here, I want to make a point in what is most frustrating when discussing intermediates to history deniers. Say we take the aforementioned anthropods and are asked to show an intermediate species which fills the gap between it and its alleged descendants: worms. The discovery of lobopods comes along and rather than satisfying this gap for the skeptic, this only creates two gaps where originally only one resided; the gap between anthropod and lobopod, and lobopod and worm. I guess the saying is true. You see what you want to see. But I digress.
The entire point I want to make about the Cambrian Explosion is this: It’s not as explosive and mysterious as we once thought. The Cambrian Explosion has enough evidence to make it compatible with, rather than contradictory to Macro-Evolution on the scale of speciation, and from this we must take the wisdom imparted. Generally speaking, a lack of understanding does not equate to an indisputable refutation. The Cambrian explosion was not the last. As our knowledge of the world around continues to grow, there will be scenarios, organisms, inconsistencies which baffle our very limited perspective. We should never be satisfied with arguments from incredulity. Science and the world as we know have always been dependent on minds that weren’t
If You’ve Made It This Far: Pat yourself on the back. The issue has been mutilated to a pulp, and I’ve friends who won’t even return my phone calls in dread someone accidently mentions praying or church and I start drunkenly ranting to the refrigerator about human embryo blastula gastrulation. (“You said you wouldn’t drink, Nate!”). I’m kidding. I don’t even have a phone. Can’t afford one and I actually enjoy the freedom of not having to cater to everyone’s social whims by drooling on a text box pressed against my face. No longer is debating the *fuck you* button a part of my life and I also have ample excuse to show up and pull the drunken fridge rant thing without notice. Until next time, remember: Evolution is a fact (*1). Evolution is compatible with God. God is unknown and my opinions are always subject to change with the rational climate.
*1 For the most up to date resources on the evidence for evolution I personally recommend The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, and Evolving: The Human Effect and Why It Matters by Daniel J. Fairbanks.