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Accepting the Reality of Biological Evolution

Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate/planche 49: Actiniae, by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) [PUBLIC DOMAIN]  The author of this work died in 1919. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 95 years or less.

Color plate illustration of Actiniae showing various sea anemones, from Ernst Haeckel’s (1834–1919) Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate/planche 49. [PUBLIC DOMAIN]

The well-established fact of biological evolution is being increasingly and frantically denied in the USA by creationists, and as I write this, a public opinion poll has announced that some 46% of the U.S. public identify themselves as creationists. According to a recent study carried out at Michigan State University, acceptance of evolution by Americans declined from 45% in 1985—already a shameful statistic— to 40% in 2005. It also found that only Turkey and the Vatican trail the U.S. in this denial of fact.

Not accepting the reality of biological evolution is equivalent to not accepting the stark fact of gravity. You can deny gravity, or claim that Earth is flat, but such simple denials do not in any way prove a point. Evolution is the single, unifying scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, and the foundation upon which the biological sciences are built. The scientific theory of evolution is accepted by an overwhelming majority of scientists around the world as the cornerstone of biology. To deny the reality of evolution is to deny the foundation upon which modern medicine and related biological sciences are built.

Of course, creationists do not believe that they are denying the reality of anything. Their reality is that evolution is false and that creationism is true. They also do not claim that this is all based in faith; no, they think that they’ve got science behind them, and it is here where they are wrong, and where scientists can show why.

I’ll present here the example of cephalopods—which include octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish—which have one central systemic heart and two branchial hearts. The dominant central heart supplies blood to the body, to the ten tentacles of squid, and to the eight tentacles of the octopus. If such redundancy is okay for sea creatures, how come we humans can’t get in on the plan?

I’ve used such examples of poor design many times, along with two of my own favorites—those delightful kidney stones, and cataracts—but I also have some derived from my personal and professional point of view. I celebrate the fact that scallywags like me— magicians—can produce some of our illusions because of the phenomenon known as persistence of vision, as well as the fact that the imaging part of the brain automatically switches off when the eye moves rapidly from one point to another, and that the mind—to better bridge gaps of information—can and does invent images that just aren’t there. While such illusions can serve a survival function as satisfying substitutes for the facts, and can assuage certain fears, the awkward facts often insist on emerging, and the resulting induced alarms are often useful indicators of very real dangers and threats.

Evolution is possibly the most firmly established, well-defined, evidence- based fact of nature that we have ever developed through science. Regularly, we discover new support for its validity. There are only a limited number of “missing links”—those chimeras that the creationists gleefully flaunt, but their numbers diminish every year. The fact that you can’t see the base of a mountain doesn’t prove that it floats in the fog, and some experienced and rational media see the situation clearly.

In my opinion, one reason so many people don’t accept the reality of evolution is that they just can’t imagine the numbers involved. They suffer from a sort of innumeracy, the inability to understand basic mathematics, though there’s no shame attached to that. The billions of individuals of the multitude of species that are born and die every second of each hour, tend to survive— and thus reproduce—better, if and when some tiny mutation or gene combination gives them a few more minutes of time, a better view, better nourishment, or a better choice and selection of a mate. And that process has been going on now for far longer than 6,000 years, despite those strident claims to the contrary.

Not accepting the reality of biological evolution is equivalent to not accepting the stark fact of gravity. You can deny it, but such denial does not in any way prove a point.

From Giant Redwoods to crickets and diatoms and ferns to whales, they all get either an advantage or a push backward from random or induced DNA/chromosome changes, and the advantaged tend to survive; the losers are often eaten. The time element goes unappreciated, too. Billions of years have passed to allow these various denizens to trot, wriggle, squirt, swim or fly across the world stage, and the process continues. Human beings have learned how to inhabit—infest?—very inhospitable parts of the world by wearing protective garments—often made from the remains of those losers who were eaten—and we have discovered that organizing fallen trees and rocks into houses is also a very good way of surviving. Most of us had to die to provide this experience, but we’re replaced regularly, so, no worries.

Just think of a common mouse, in its tiny perfection, able to survive—as a species and as an individual—long enough to produce enough descendants— 10 to 12 at a time—to meet the culinary requirements of various predators. That can call for dozens of mice from each male-female pairing, very often over a short life span, but nature provides enough for that purpose to feed snakes, birds, cats and such… It’s a neat and merciless process, but it’s nature, and it works very, very, well. True, for one or more reasons the common house mouse (Mus musculus) may vanish some day, but any number of other beasties will promptly drop right into place to fill that gap.

The uninformed often don’t care much about the history of how they got here. They’re surviving chunks of protoplasm who merely take from the environment and then move on and out. What a pity. But scientists can fall into that trap, too. Dr. Allan Rex Sandage (1926–2010) was a well-known and highly accomplished astronomer who answered a few very basic questions about the probable age of the universe, among other puzzles. Then in 2001 he published a short essay, A Scientist Reflects on Religious Belief which attempted to answer the question: Can a person be a scientist and also be a Christian? His answer was:

Yes … the world is too complicated in all its parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone. I am convinced that the existence of life with all its order in each of its organisms is simply too well put together. Each part of a living thing depends on all its other parts to function. How does each part know? How is each part specified at conception? The more one learns of biochemistry the more unbelievable it becomes unless there is some type of organizing principle—an architect for believers—a mystery to be solved by science (even as to why) sometime in the indefinite future for materialist reductionalists.

Notice the assumption in the phrase “too well put together,” which already assumes the “designer” notion, and the rather inane—and equally assumptive—“How does each part know?” question. What Dr. Sandage missed here, is that biology has effectively answered how “each part is specified” and he needed to have a much better grasp of biochemistry, in my opinion. Though evolution- derived science has already answered his queries definitively and decisively, such essays provide the woo-woos with an argument that involves a prominent scientist who supported— by faulty reasoning—belief in a Biblical myth. This essay was a blow against rationality, a surprising and unfortunate error from a person of such quality and experience.

There exists a strange notion among creationists that somehow our Sun was designed specifically to accommodate life on Earth, that the variable distance of Earth from the Sun, the changing slope of the Sun’s illumination, and the shielding effects of the Van Allen Belt are heaven-sent and specially provided blessings. They rant on about the differences in temperature, oxygen content, and atmospheric pressure that would—if not remaining within rather small tolerances—doom us. They either choose to ignore or seem unaware that certain forms of life—known as extremophiles— not only exist but thrive under conditions that would instantly kill us, the deity-appointed and chosen species. The blatant facts that they fail to see are that if these conditions had not existed, such questions about life could never have been asked, and the plausible answer is that present life forms developed—dare I say, “evolved”?—to survive under these conditions and with the changes they’ve undergone. Some extremophiles—the wonderful scarlet-and-yellow “tube worms” serve as wonderful examples— are not only happy under very unhuman conditions, but unhappy to the point of extinction if exposed to O2, and some perish if they’re not living in highly acidic water boiling at temperatures far above 100°C due to the extreme pressures at extreme depths. That high-pressure requirement also means that they explode when harvested and brought to our environment for examination, with results not easily imagined… Theirs are certainly conditions more suitable to Hell, and not to a pleasant afternoon for humans on Earth.

Over the ages, countless billions of species—not just individuals—have evolved, developed, flourished, and become extinct simply because they could not adapt to changes. The fossil record abounds with such examples, but we only need to visit a few Pacific Islands to find giant centipedes with up to 346 legs—talk about innumeracy!—all marvelously coordinated and performing their daily tasks. How very beautiful.

Personally, I have no problem with the fact that my own life expectancy grows shorter daily, due to the fact that I just cannot survive beyond a certain limit, but I take some comfort in knowing that medical science has progressed to the point that it defeats some of my more serious sources of possible demise, though imperfectly. Making room on an overcrowded planet seems a good idea to me, and I accept that inevitability. Not easily, but philosophically. Sigh…

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (page 1)

A few years ago, The Skeptics Society put together a concise little pamphlet that provides answers to common objections to evolution, such as: If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans?; Only an intelligent designer could have made something as complex as an eye; The second law of thermo-dynamics proves that evolution is impossible; Evolution can’t account for morality; and more…
Download “Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)” (PDF)

Amateur scientist that I am, I have little fear that our species can tinker enough with the powerful forces of evolution to bring about major changes that could doom us to extinction, though I do harbor a suspicion that our constant patching and pasting of our environment makes us dependent on tinkering in order that we survive beyond Nature’s optimal age of utility— I’d guess that to be about 35 or so, seeing the afflictions that appear to be served up to us at about that age. Vaccinations, antibiotics, surgical procedures, hygienic precautions, and general alertness to invasions by various tiny intruders, along with repairs of various parts—teeth and eyes come immediately to mind—are certainly required if we wish to survive to old age. I’m all in favor of this goal, not only since I’ve enjoyed my survival, but I find that I’m now dipping into my experiences of the last four-score-plus years to come up with the words you are now reading… END

About the Author

MacArthur “genius award” recipient James Randi is a professional magician, author, lecturer, and in vestigator of unusual claims. His books include The Mask of Nostradamus, The Faith Healers, Flim-Flam!, The Truth About Uri Geller, Houdini—His Life and Art, Conjuring and An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, & Hoaxes of the Occult & Supernatural. He belongs to numerous humanist and scientific organizations and was recently granted an honorary doctorate. Mr. Randi has logged over 100,000 miles a year in his research into pseudoscience. Isaac Asimov called Randi “a national treasure,” and Carl Sagan said of him: “We may disagree with Randi on specific points but we ignore him at our peril.”

About the Article

James Randi wrote the “’Twas Brillig…” column regularly for Skeptic magazine until issue 19.2 (2014). The above article was Randi’s second-last column, which appeared in Skeptic magazine 19.1 in 2014, under the title “Let’s Get Real, Even if it Hurts.”

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