My education at Texas public schools contains a knowledge gap that students who came before and after me were able to fill. I was a product of the “evolution black-out” in public education that took place in the mid ‘90s as various religious groups in (usually) conservative states sought to either dilute or ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. While evolution was never officially banned from the classroom, I never had a single drop of evolution education in my science classes because my teachers at the time were intimidated by the status quo of the Bible-belt South, or were sympathetic to the cause of Creationism. Luckily, I was drawn to the sciences in college, and have since grown as much an appreciation for the many disciplines of science as I have for, say, music, art, literature, or film. I group these together for a reason: I want to promote science here as something not only “cool” and “interesting,” but beautiful, transcendent, or as a lucid way of understanding reality.
More specifically, I want to share some fascinating facts about evolution, present some common misconceptions, and even point out criticism within the field. What I will not do, however, is leave room for supernatural causes in evolution, the creation of man, or the universe for that matter. The fact that a disturbing majority of Americans believe in some form of creationism tells me that most of you reading this may believe in a supernatural power. Most of you are going to be loosely-defined-deists, bred out of the liberal new-age movement in the ‘90s, who accept the fact of evolution, but leave room for God’s hand in the creation of the universe. While one can certainly believe in a divine creator and accept evolution, as I’ll show later, doing so only complicates one’s model of the universe.
The Fact of Evolution
Ask almost any biologist who their most inspiring scientist is, and they’ll probably answer Charles Darwin. Born on February 12, 1809 (the same day and year as Abraham Lincoln), Darwin would be lucky to come of age during the period of the Enlightenment, which valued free inquiry, reason and logic. The Enlightenment allowed Darwin to question the institutions that came before him, which ultimately allowed him to dethrone God as the guiding-stick of life. Unfortunately, at the time, Darwin did not have a whole lot of evidence to support his claim. He did have evidence (his travels on the Beagle, for example, where in the Galapagos Islands he observed Mocking Birds and tortoise shells of varying types distributed uniformly through the islands) but not the type of closed-case evidence we have today.
The fossil record is so extensive that it alone is enough evidence to prove evolution, but if any of you have heard a creationist debate evolution, the term “missing link” is all-too familiar. Framing the debate in this way reveals an ignorance about one’s understanding of evolution. So-called “links” are found all the time, but when a creationist is presented with a transitional fossil between two organisms, they invariably ask for the two links between them, regressing into infinity.
Another solid line of evidence for evolution can be found in Radiometric Dating – a technique of dating rocks by measuring the amount of radioactive decay in the sample. What do the age of rocks tell us about evolution? When we discover a fossil, dating the rock it was found in gives us the approximate time the organism died. The implications of this are potentially deadly for evolution, but not a single organism has been found “out of place” in the geologic data. In other words, we’ve not yet found a rabbit fossil in the Precambrian (as made famous by J. Haldane). Radiometric dating supports evolution and also shows that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old – another point of contention for creationists who believe the Earth is about 6 thousand years old (to scale, that’s a difference, as Richard Dawkins points out, of thinking the distance between New York and San Francisco is about 7 yards).
Even if you disregard both the examples above, the one end-all, be-all body of evidence that supports evolution is microbiology. DNA and RNA were acronyms that wouldn’t exist for another 50 years after Darwin’s death. Darwin had no insight into the building-blocks of life, DNA and RNA, but that’s just what we want from science: a model that makes a prediction where all future circumstances play-out accordingly. Such is the case with microbiology. If you want, you can watch evolution on the micro-biotic scale right before your eyes. High school science classrooms across the country replicate bacterial evolution annually. So what sort-of gymnastic trick do creationist employ at this evidence? They’ll tell you evolution exists on the micro-scale, but not in the macro.
Was Darwin Wrong?
About some things? Yes. About evolution? No. One thing us science-lovers echo is that if Darwin where here today, evolution would look almost alien to him. Many creationist try to use this fact as a nail-in-the-coffin for evolution, but this outlook outs them as being ignorant not only about evolution and the Scientific Method, but to the values scientists hold. Their whole point, and the point of the Enlightenment era for that matter, is to question authority. Creationists often call us who accept the fact of evolution “Darwinists.” This idiotic tactic is disingenuous at the least; it’s as if I’m somehow a “Newtonian” because I also accept the laws of gravity.
Speaking of Newton, (founder of physics, the first to describe gravity), I often draw analogies between his theories and Darwin’s to illustrate how people (even intelligent ones), can pick and choose their reality. For example, you never hear creationists try to shoot down the theory of gravity. And yes, that’s all it is, a theory. But even there, you can get into trouble. A theory in layman’s terms, is “hypothetical thinking.” A theory in scientific terms, however, is not what it is to layman. A theory in science is the strongest body of knowledge one can build. What many people confuse “theory” for is what scientists call a hypothesis. The hypothesis is the idea, the theory is the proof.
What’s with the Stephen Hawking Illustration?
I’ve been a fan of his for years, and have read almost all of Hawking’s books. Ultimately, if you want to understand evolution, and why it requires no supernatural force to operate, you have to gain a wider understanding of all the sciences. Hawking, a theoretical physicist, penned several books over his years, and throughout all of them (excluding his most recent, The Grand Design), he allows for the possibility of Spinoza’s God to have a “starting touch” to our universe. But in The Grand Design, Hawking courageously jettisons this position. Just as evolution is all you need to explain the propagation of life, Hawking realizes you don’t need God to explain the propagation of the universe. That’s the type of final step I hope more people will take when looking at evolution. Instead of thinking that some supernatural guy with a “Universe Starter Kit” put our lives in motion, start with a more humble and grounded-in-reality approach that we all descend from a common ancestry on planet Earth, and that that’s amazing enough.