“To study history one must know in advance that one is attempting something fundamentally impossible, yet necessary and highly important. To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning. It is a very serious task, young man, and possibly a tragic one.” – Father Jacobus (from Hesse’s “Magister Ludi”)
Evolution is the most important concept in Biology. Understanding how all life on Earth is related to all other life and what truly distinguishes homo sapiens from all other life is crucial to understanding our purpose for existing. Understanding our past helps us to understand the focus of our future.
Without evolution, we are merely taking our modern problems at their face value. Medicine, agriculture, environmentalism, capitalism, democracy, so many dimensions of our existence benefit from understanding the Evolutionary process and harvesting the power of that process.
Layers of the Past Within Ourselves
Because the mutation of existing organs has an extremely high probability of killing the organism, successful mutation more commonly works by adding layers of complexity to biological structures. The evolution of the brain provides the most obvious example of this dynamic at work. Basic fish have only a brain stem, reptiles have a forebrain layer on top of the brainstem, and mammals have a neocortex layer enveloping both of these structures. Our brains, therefore, exhibit the evolutionary strata of our ancestry.
We see our evolutionary history exhibited elsewhere in our biology as well, in the process of a developing pregnancy, from a single-celled life, to a cluster of undifferentiated cells. Then the human embryo resembles a fish embryo, complete with gills that serve no purpose. From here, it advances to a stage where it resembles an amphibian. The embryo progresses through 3 billion years of evolutionary history until it advances into a human fetus.
Update: 01 JAN 2007
The above image, drawn by biologist Ernst Haekel, is innacurrate, as is his specific theory of “Embryonic Recapitulation,” on which my statements are based. Read more about this here.
The HYPOTHESIS of Evolution Versus The THEORY and FACT of Evolution
One of the more popular arguments against evolution is that it is merely a “Theory,” and not a fact. As those who understand the framework of science know, a theory is a the most plausible explanation supported by the facts. So when public schools, such as the Alabama’s Board of Education, require textbooks qualify Evolution as a “Theory” and not a fact, they are showcasing their ignorance of the scientific method. For this reason, I have reworded the debate to correctly define the “hypothesis” of Evolution from the theory of Evolution.
Contrary to the common misconception, evolution is not a hypothesis, but a proven scientific fact, and a theory that has been repeated through scientific studies and observations of the natural world. The fact is that the Earth is 3.6 billion years old. The fact is that there were once Dinosaurs, and there are none now. The fact is that there are humans now and there were no humans not too far back into the past. The fact is that all life comes from other life.
As a Civilization, the human race has used Evolution to change the world around it. We have artificially selected useful animals and plants to preserve, while exterminating the harmful. Fish farms use the evolutionary process to maintain the average size of their stocks. Health Organizations today urge the Medical Community to refrain from the use of Antibiotics, because, like insecticide-resistant cockroaches and locusts, infectious bacteria are rapidly adapting to these hostile agents.
The hypothesis of evolution has to do with the history of this process and the details of its mechanisms. There is indeed much we don’t know about this process, which took 3.5 billion years. That’s 3,500,000,000 years to roughly 3,000 years of recorded history. Or to put it another way, we’ve only seen 0.000009% of the process. Think about that in terms of Chaos Theory.
The hypothesis of Evolution wonders how things got from the fact of single-celled organisms 2 billion years ago to the fact that we stand here today debating it. How did we go from tree-dwelling hair-covered primates to hairless-uprights? Did we evolve these traits in an Aquatic environment, a Savanna envirionment, or a Mosaic of environments? Why does the fossil record plainly show that dolphins and whales are descendents of land-mammals? What made them return to the ocean? We know the basics of how the first cells formed, but what about the process that created the intricate designs of DNA, molecules with the ability to reproduce?
These are the speculations of Evolution, a massive puzzle, billions of years long, where the majority of the pieces are forever lost. The fossil record preserves only a very small fraction of the links, but what it has preserved only serves to reinforce this process to explain our origins.
Evolutionary Strata in Daily Life
Economic Evolution: With the invention of trade and currency, goods and services began to compete in the marketplace. Better innovations, business models, and products emerge from this system, where everyone competes for a limited amount of buying power. Capitalism harnesses the power of evolution by providing as free and fair a system for products to compete in as possible.
Ideological Evolution: Evolution has been used to promote many naive and ignorant ideologies. It has been used to promote racial inferiority, Marxism, “Master Races,” etc. The fact that such ideas have failed to take the majority of minds in our global civilization is an example of Ideological Darwinism. Democracy harnesses the power of evolution by providing a system for ideas to compete for popularity.
Social Evolution: The most powerful evolutionary trait of homo sapiens is our communal habits. The global community is comprised of hundreds of smaller communities, all competing with one another ideologically, economically, and, to a lessening degree, militarily. There are bodies that attempt to mediate this macro system, such as the UN and the WTO, but this is where cultural evolution works out as more effective Social Hierarchies reap the benefits of cross-cultural interactions.
Environmental Evolution: Human beings have the ability to effect our environment in ways so drastic that they have not been seen since plant life oxygenated our atmosphere. The natural world has been artificially selected according to our desires. We cultivate food crops and destroy weeds. We breed cattle for docility and size. We may have shrunk the size of life in the ocean by fishing out the largest members of different species. We evolve the world to our liking, and often to our detriment.
Evolution is not a steady rise
We must remember that evolution, both physical and social, is not a system of continual progress. The better design does not always win. Consider the virus or parasite that kills its host or the economic system that destroys its environment. Consider the Native Americans whose culture valued cleanliness and sanitation, when confronted with the unhygienic, disease-ridden Europeans, were quickly wiped out by the plethora of microbial assaults brought with the foreigners from the cesspool of London. It is true that many of the Native Americans’ memes survived, the Europeans adopted their farming techniques and eventually, their system of Democracy after occupying their ghost-villages and abandoned farmlands.
Evolution and Creationism
There are two schools of thought involving the idea that all of this was created. One school is Creationism, which takes a classical and literal interpretation of the Bible’s account of our origins. The universe and Earth were created in seven days, Adam and Eve were the first humans, and we are all the children of Cain.
Creationism denies the Earth as billions of years old and a universe that’s even older. It denies the fossil record and everything we have learned about the natural history of our planet. It must engage in fantastic levels of denial, all to fit our existence into something so simple and mundane as a universe that came into being a few thousand years ago and all life with it.
Intelligent Design argues, not for the literal Biblical account of our origins, but does see an intelligence at work in our origins. The Bible is not necessarily wrong, but takes poetic license. For instance, the claim of all creation being formed in seven days must be interpreted from the perspective of an infinitely powerful being. To such an entity, a billion years might be as a fraction of a second.
The religions of Abraham very poetically describe God as manufacturing the human race out of dust or clay. Evolution concurs with this method. Amino acids formed out of lightning and water. DNA molecules are simply molecules with the ability to reproduce themselves. We certainly are made out of the same stuff as dust and being such does not negate the scriptures.
It seems odd that I must take this moment to clarify that Evolution and Intelligent Design are not mutually exclusive concepts, but can easily coexist. The concept of Evolution, from an Intelligent Design perspective, is so incredibly inspiring. The idea that, if there is a god, it took that being billions of years to create us seems so much more impressive, especially when we think of how the Bible describes the whole thing as being only seven days to the deity. It also makes all life, from our perspective, so much more unique and sacred for what would be to us an awesome effort to bring us into existence. Someone snapping their fingers to make it happen instantly seems so tawdry and unremarkable in comparison.
You can believe in evolution and still believe in an invisible hand coaxing it along. Just as most Creationists believe that invisible hand still coaxes us along. What’s wrong with discovering the methods God used to accomplish this?
Isn’t Science for some the quest to find the hand of god?
If evolution is a gradual process of biological refinement, then what does the future hold for us? Our bipedal locomotion, opposable thumbs, and dexterity all helped bring humans into the position of dominant species on Earth, but it was our adaptable brains and culture that played the biggest role. We are no longer fettered by the slow genetic changes and chance mutations once necessary for evolving. Now we have culture, technology, the means to improve our lives through means outside of biology.
As the dominant species on our planet, we also have the greatest responsibility to it in our own interests. Our planet is currently undergoing the sixth mass extinction in natural history, and we are the cause. Reducing the variety of life on Earth removes links in the food chain and brings down our quality of life overall. Variety provides greater chance for adaptability, and that is good for continuing life on Earth.
We also have environmental factors to monitor. Global warming is not a concern for “tree-huggers” and hippies only concerned with saving the Earth. It is a well-researched and well-documented issue that concerned only the human race. If the Earth warms, only mammals will die. Plants, insects, and reptiles will thrive in the new environment.
Most importantly, from evolution we learn that the human race is precious. We are unique on Earth for our intelligence and our culture, two evolutionary traits that took 3.5 billion years to spring forth. To think of what it took to bring us here, and then realize that we could lose it all in the blink of an eye through Nuclear War or a meteorite is terrifying.
We must take care.
Evolution Resources Online