I was startled by the simplicity of the forumla. Stephen Jay Gould, the late eminent paleontologist, biologist and historian of science, summed up Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection so eloquently and so succinctly that it rocked me back on my heels. It was something even a diehard creationist could understand (assuming he or she wanted to try…)
First there are three basic facts Gould states about life and living creatures:
All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive;
All organisms within a species vary from one another;
At least some of these variations will be inherited by offspring.
From these three, simple facts – easily proven by observation, research and analysis – Gould says the principles of natural selection, as Darwin postulated in 1859, can be inferred. These are:
Since only some offspring will survive, on average these survivors will have those variations that are generally better adapted to survival in changing environments;
Those offspring will inherit the favourable variations of their parents;
Organisms of the next generation will be better adapted to local environments.
Simple, eh? I thought so, too. Next year will mark 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published. I already have a bottle of wine aging for the celebration.
I came across this elegant description some years back, while reading Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer (Harper Collins, New York, 2001). The book is the companion to the PBS series on evolution. Gould wrote the introduction. I have yet to see the series (we don’t subscribe to TV) , but I enjoyed the 364-page book. It’s one of many such titles in my library.
Well, it finally opened: the $100 million-dollar Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky that features an allegedly life-size model of the mythological boat described in the Bible. It’s 510 feet (155.4m) long, 85 feet (26m) wide, more than three storeys (51 feet) tall, uses 3.1 million board-feet of lumber, steel and other modern materials, on a base of rebar-reinforced concrete.*
The only two materials specifically mentioned in the Biblical tale are gopher wood and pitch. But this reconstruction doesn’t use gopher wood or pitch – curiously, both are conspicuous in their absence in this modern remaking. In fact, pitch isn’t even mentioned in the website about the theme park. Details, schmeetails…
It was built using a large crew equipped with modern cranes and tools based on diesel and electrical power. Without which, a bronze-age farmer would have had a tough time building something of this scale, let alone go to Australia and New Zealand and the Antarctic and Tibet and Mongolia and Rhodesia to collect the birds and animals he was supposed to carry.
Now if you know the story in Genesis, the ark wasn’t supposed to go cruising, just float. It didn’t have sails. As it points out on the Friendly Atheist blog, Ham’s ark is completely wrong in its design and purpose:
That implies that it was designed to go somewhere with a purpose. Cruise ship. Cargo ship. War ship. But Noah’s Ark wasn’t a ship. Noah had one job — to make sure the Ark floated and keep everyone on it alive. His Ark didn’t have propulsion, engines, or sails. It just had to float.
That means what Noah built was a barge. It was made to simply hold something while an external source pushed it around… what “launch” is he talking about? In the Genesis story, the Ark was built and then floated as the water rose. It was never “launched” as we would see of ships today… Also, as far as a “landing,” who cares? If Noah successfully guided the Ark to the point where he could “land,” the method of doing it would have been irrelevant since the Flood was over and everyone survived.
So basically, the look, design and construction of this thing are all made up. Imaginary. Fictional. Like all the stories and myths in Genesis itself (I’ll write more about that sometime soon, but you can already guess my approach). But let’s look at the ark itself.
While 61% of Icelanders say they believe in God, according to a recent poll, absolutely none under the age of 25 believe that their personal hairy thunderer created the world:
Less than half of Icelanders claim they are religious and more than 40% of young Icelanders identify as atheist. Remarkably the poll failed to find young Icelanders who accept the creation story of the Bible. 93.9% of Icelanders younger than 25 believed the world was created in the big bang, 6.1% either had no opinion or thought it had come into existence through some other means and 0.0% believed it had been created by God.
None. Zero. That’s pretty astounding and progressive, especially when you compare it to the USA, where 42% of Americans still have superstitious, medieval creationist beliefs, according to a mid-2014 Gallup poll:
More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.
Well, a lot of Americans also believe in Donald Trump, so one can’t really be surprised at their lack of acuity, scientific education and common sense. There is some faint hope for a growth in secular (critical) thought, though, as Gallup notes:
There is little indication of a sustained downward trend in the proportion of the U.S. population who hold a creationist view of human origins. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who adhere to a strict secularist viewpoint — that humans evolved over time, with God having no part in this process — has doubled since 1999.
I’m not holding my breath for any sudden dawning of mass rationalism in the USA. Not while Trump, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter get any media attention. It’s the home of the truther, open-carry, anti-vaccination, climate-change-denial, Tea Party and the TVangelist movements, after all. The vast majority of wingnut, conspiracy and pseudoscience sites I have seen are American made, too (local blogs notwithstanding). Continue reading “The Rational Gods of Iceland”
I know, I know, it’s the proverbial fish in a barrel when you critique creationists. They are just so easy to mock. But how can you help yourself when someone like Ken Ham opens his mouth in public? The media just love to pounce all over him. He must take his lessons in PR from Ann Coulter. And like with Ann, the controversy probably helps sell his books.
(And, from what I see, selling books is really what Ken is all about. But that’s not the point of this post.)*
Ken’s latest foray into looniness – a territory he has already explored well and thoroughly – came in reports of his demand for NASA to end the space program searching for signs of alien life because all aliens are going to Hell.
Well, that’s not exactly what he said. But he implied it when he wrote,
“…any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation… You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation. One day, the whole universe will be judged by fire, and there will be a new heavens and earth… An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam.”
The theological argument might be a tad complex for an audience decreasingly schooled in complex ideas and critical thinking, and increasingly schooled in wardrobe malfunctions and nipple slips as “newsworthy” content, so the media boiled it down to a rather simplistic idea. I mean, after all, if you’re saved, you go to heaven, right? So logically in the Christian cosmos where do you go if you’re not saved? Right: hell.
No, Ham didn’t use those exact words, but it’s not hard to get the inference from what he did say. (and he’s almost mild compared to some of his fellow religionists – some Christians won’t even admit other Christians into their heaven if they aren’t of the same denomination! I suppose it’s not terribly crowded up there, and the line-up for an espresso will be short…)
Aliens, therefore, are all doomed, just as much as any Earthy sinners (not to mention those of other religions or denominations), because Jesus couldn’t save them. Why not? Because Jesus was the saviour for this world only, not other worlds. So any ETs are doomed. Q.E.D.
Well, that is if there are aliens. Ham doesn’t actually believe in them – in fact he doesn’t believe in ANY sort of life outside this planet – and roundly criticized NASA for, as he sees it, wasting millions of dollars in a futile search for non-existent alien life. According to the HuffPost:
…Ham, president and CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., said we probably are alone. He wrote “earth was specially created,” and the entire hunt for extraterrestrials is “really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!”
Gosh, our desperate attempt to prove a scientific fact. We’re all damned. Just like ET. Well, maybe not Ham and his fellow creationists, I presume.
To be fair, Ken made a video after his original post, this time encouraging NASA to continue its search (i.e. continue to waste money) because it would prove creationists right by not finding extraterrestrial life:
You have to chuckle over the prop. Looking for aliens in the midday sun using a hobbyist telescope. Cute.
February 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).
If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.
Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:
…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.
In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.
And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”
I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.
Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.
Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*
On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.
First is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.
If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?
Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.
Charles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.
But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.
It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath: philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:
For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.
He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:
“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”
Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.
In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.
It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869 fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:
“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”
The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*
Fittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.
It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.
It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:
Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.