25 September 2010

And She Doesn't Even Believe in Evolution!

While internet contributions role in, cycical secularists paint Christine O'Donnell as a whack job.
Bill Maher has been going after Christine O'Donnell, most recently replaying a dozen year-old clip in which she characterized evolution as a "myth." Maher's object is to paint O'Donnell as a wack job. Like many liberals, he views evolution as a litmus test. According to this, expressed doubts as to its explanatory power are proof positive of the doubter's having been endowed, as Shakespeare so deliciously put it, with "a paucity of headpiece."

The paucity, of course, is Maher's, his dearth, being one of probity, not of intelligence. Like über-evolutionists Dennett and Dawkins, Maher is driven by a hatred for religion. And O'Donnell is a believer. Hate the belief; hate the believer. It's all very simple. And intellectually dishonest.

Facts. The author of The Origin was fond of pointing to his "facts," observations that "the view given by me … connects … by an intelligible thread of reasoning" [Darwin, 1863]. Here follow four facts of my own:
  1. There are two theories of evolution, the pattern, what Darwin called "descent with modification," and the mechanism, often reduced to "variation plus selection," by which change transpires.

  2. Since Darwin's day, evidence for common descent has accumulated steadily. It is in the hard parts and the soft, the physiology and the biochemistry, most fundamentally, in the genes. To deny the derivation of amphibians from lobe fin fish, of stem reptiles from labyrinthodont amphibians, of mammals from cynodonts, of humans from non-human primates, etc., is a prescription for looking foolish. The pattern is clear. Either new species have descended from old, or they have "come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species" [Wallace, 1855].

  3. With regard to evolutionary mechanisms, the situation is different. Over the years, there has been a succession of ideas, and these ideas continue to change. The now not so Modern Synthesis, which is still taught in freshman biology classes, identified small variations as the "stuff" of evolution. But as more is learned about gene regulation and development [Carroll, 2005], this view increasingly is seen as incomplete. Even the "Lamarckian heresy," the inheritance of acquired characters, may be headed for a comeback, though this remains a minority opinion.

  4. Importantly, no one has been able to "predict," retrospectively, of course, the broad outlines of life's history on this planet. Variation plus selection does not predict the pre-eminance of microbes during the first four billion years of earth’s history, i.e., as opposed to the first three, two or one billion. It does not predict the skeletization, if not the origin, of the major taxonomic groups some half a billion years ago. Nor does it necessitate the dominance of early Paleozoic seas by invertebrates, nor the subsequent and essentially simultaneous colonization of the land by insects and the limbed descendants of rhipidistian lungfish. It cannot tell us that dinosaurs and mammals would come into being at about the same time, and, regarding the latter’s 100 million year eclipse by the former, it says nothing. It is unable to tell us what would have transpired had the Chicxulub asteroid missed. And, of course, it cannot predict the emergence of man, much less the fact that humans would one day compose symphonies and argue as to whether or not God really does play dice with the universe.

    Referring to Lamarck's changing views on transmutation, Steve Gould [1999] obsrved that
    "Nature, to cite a modern cliche, always bats last. She will not succumb to the simplicities of our hopes or mental foibles, but she remains eminently comprehensible. Evolution follows the syncopated drumbeats of complex and contingent histories, shaped by the vagaries and uniquenesses of time, place, and environment. Simple laws with predictable outcomes cannot fully describe the pageant and pathways of life. A linear march of progress must raft as a model for evolution, but a luxuriantly branching tree does capture the basic geometry of history.”
    Implicit in Gould's analysis is the presumption that, contingency notwithstanding, the history of life is explicable in purely materialist terms. But that is an article of faith, no less than the belief thatCreation requires a Creator. For those so inclined, there remains plenty of room for divine "tweaking."

Queerer Than One Can Suppose.
J. B. S. Haldane, himself an atheist, observed that
"my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
Of course, what is "queer" depends on time and place. To the 18th century naturalists who studied Nature in order to better understand Nature's God, the idea that new species are a consequence of secondary laws was unacceptable; likewise, the prospect that Nature's Supreme Author plays a direct role in the unfolding of events, to contemporary materialists. But who can say which belief will be deemed commonsensical a hundred years down the road?

Wiseguys like Maher have every right to go after O'Donnell for her political positions. When they trash her faith, they reveal themselves for what they are: politically correct bigots.


Carroll, S. B. 2005. Endless Forms Most Beautiful. The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom. W. W. Norton. NY.

Darwin, C. 1863. The doctrine of heterogeny and modification of species. Athenaeum. No. 1852, (25 April): 554-55.

Gould, S. J. 1999. Branching Through a Wormhole. Lamarck’s ladder collapses. Natural History. 108: (March): 24-27, 76-81.

Wallace, A. R. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Ann. Mag. Natural History. 16: 184-196.

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