Ending the evolution “controversy” once and for all

Evolution by natural selection is as close to a fact as you can possibly get. It’s a scientific theory; that is, it’s backed up by objective, falsifiable, empirical evidence – it’s not simply a ‘guess’ or an ‘idea’ or ‘just a theory’ – scientific theories aren’t colloquial ‘theories’. This is why every national academy of science and scientific organisation which has made a statement on the evolution-creation “controversy” has been fully supportive of the theory of evolution. The InterAcademy Panel, for instance, consisting of more than 100 national science academies, endorsed the following statement:

Since its first appearance on Earth, life has taken many forms, all of which continue to evolve, in ways which palaeontology and the modern biological and biochemical sciences are describing and independently confirming with increasing precision. Commonalities in the structure of the genetic code of all organisms living today, including humans, clearly indicate their common primordial origin.

Meanwhile, in 2005, the National Science Teachers Association, a professional association made up of 55,000 science teachers, said of Intelligent Design – the only alternative “hypothesis” there is to evolution:

intelligent design is not science… it is simply unfair to present pseudoscience to children in the science classroom

In the same year, 38 Nobel Laureates issued a statement stating the following:

intelligent design is fundamentally unscientific; it cannot be tested as a scientific theory

Finally, it’s worth noting that at least 47 of the Nobel Prize winning bodies of work for medicine or physiology have depended on evolutionary theory, demonstrating its importance within science. (1)

In a nutshell, this shows that there is no debate in the scientific community over evolution by natural selection, and this is because of the evidence coming from at least 6 different independent scientific fields in support of evolution. Firstly, we’ll start off with the fossil evidence. Fossils are valuable, although not necessarily essential, in learning about the tree of life and they demonstrate that, over time, organisms have changed and become more complex, and are related to each other. To take a specific example, we can look at the fossil record of the horse – we start with Eohippus, or Hyracotherium, which was a small animal, the size of a fox, and we can then look at all of the intermediate species that existed between Eohippus and the modern horse – equus, and find that various features have changed – a 45 inch increase in size, the lengthening of the limbs and feet and the reduction of lateral digits, for example. (2) The earliest of these changes occurred during the transition of eohippus to orohippus, approximately 50 million years ago, which evolved an elongated head, slimmer forelimbs and longer hind legs, which increased its proficiency in jumping. (3) In sum, with this example, we can see that over millions of years, eohippus has gradually, going through at least 12 different transitional species in the process, evolved into the modern horse.

When it comes to fossils, a common complaint that one might hear from religious people who deny evolution is that “missing links” have not been found; that is, the exact common ancestor of two certain groups or species. Firstly, this is axiomatically incorrect because a number of “missing links” or intermediate forms have been found. But, secondly, their insistence upon this demonstrates their misunderstanding of evolution. The fact of the matter is that as long as we find transitional forms that fit with the predictions of evolution, we will know that the prediction is correct. For example, biologists do not think they have yet found the exact common ancestor of birds and reptiles, but they have found fossils of a number of birds who have reptilian features, and vice-versa, which demonstrates that birds do share a common ancestor with reptiles. One of the earliest known birds which also had reptilian features was archaeopteryx, which lived around 150 million years ago. (4) This, and many other fossils like it, demonstrates that birds share a common ancestor with reptiles and that groups of animals were different in the past. There is also an abundance of fossils in support of human evolution, specifically common ancestry with chimpanzees, for example the famous Homo erectus and Homo habilis, as well as Australopithecus afarensis, a species which lived between 3 and 4 million years ago and had a number of human characteristics, including arches in the foot (5) but also many characteristics of a chimpanzee, including the smaller sized brain.

Evidence also comes from molecular biology and genetics. All living organisms have been found to share DNA in common and the genetic record corroborates the fossil record in that we see the same tree of life – the fossils, for example, suggest that apes are the closest cousins to humans, and that is exactly what we see in the DNA record, with chimpanzees being our closest cousins sharing 98.8% of DNA with us. (6) This shows that humans and chimpanzees are related and share a common ancestor. Not only that, but pseudo genes also rule out design as an explanation for the genetic observations – we share non-functional DNA with other organisms as well as functional DNA (7), but seeing as this DNA has no use, why would an intelligent designer even insert it into our genetic code in the first place, especially as some estimates have it as making up 99% of our genetic code. A specific chromosome illustrates nicely our common lineage with chimpanzees and other hominids, namely chromosome 2. This is because hominids, including chimpanzees, have 24 pairs of chromosomes, yet humans only have 23 pairs of chromosomes. The cause of the missing chromosome is that human chromosome 2 is a fusion of two ancestral chromosomes, and this is supported by the fact that chromosome 2 in humans has a near identical DNA sequence to that of two separate chromosomes in chimpanzees (8), demonstrating that those two separate chromosomes fused together to form human chromosome 2. Of course, those in the intelligent design community might argue that the intelligent designer simply used the same DNA that was in the two chimpanzee chromosomes but decided to put it in only one chromosome in humans instead. Not only does this seem incredibly far-fetched and have no evidence whatsoever to support it, but the presence of vestigial telomeres also supports the ancestral fusion model – telomeres are usually found at the ends of chromosomes, yet in chromosome 2, they’re also found in the middle, showing that two ends of our ancestral chromosomes fused together to form human chromosome 2. (9) This is why the biologist J.W. Ijdo concludes:

the locus cloned in cosmids c8.1 and c29B is the relic of an ancient telomere-telomere fusion and marks the point at which two ancestral ape chromosomes fused to give rise to human chromosome 2

Would an intelligent designer literally fuse together two chromosomes? Again, it seems unlikely, but I’m sure creationists could concoct some kind of scenario in which an intelligent designer would do this. This is exactly why scientists regard intelligent design as pseudoscience – it’s unfalsifiable. Chromosome fusion, by contrast, is an observed phenomenon in biology.

More evidence from molecular biology in support of evolution by natural selection comes from cytochrome C, which is a ubiquitous protein which exists in all living cells of every organism and performs very basic life functions. It is made up of 100-104 different amino acids, in a sequence, and as expected, similar organisms have similar or identical sequences of cytochrome C: for instance, humans and chimpanzees have identical sequences as do chicken and turkeys, as do pigs cows and sheep. Meanwhile, rhesus monkeys’ sequences are identical to humans and chimpanzees’ except for one amino acid. (10) This is, of course, strong evidence, but it’s even stronger evidence for common ancestry because the protein cytochrome C has a high degree of functional redundancy; that is, changing the amino acid sequence barely affects the functionality of the protein, meaning that it’s far more likely that humans and chimpanzees, for example, share an identical sequence due to random mutation and common ancestry rather than due to an intelligent designer, because an intelligent designer could have made the sequence identical in every single organism and it wouldn’t have affected how it worked! Only random mutation would, for no reason, alter the sequence when no alteration was needed.

Moving into comparative anatomy, there is a plethora of evidence that supports evolution by natural selection. To take a specific example, the recurrent laryngeal nerve in, especially, giraffes, provides evidence that giraffes’ ancestry lies in the ocean and that intelligent design is, again, false. The recurrent laryngeal nerve, rather than travel an optimal route of just several inches, takes almost a 15 ft detour by passing from the brain down into the neck, past the heart, round the aorta and through the neck again to the larynx. Natural selection explains this perfectly – the nerve’s route would have been direct in the fish-like ancestors of modern tetrapods, traveling from the brain, past the heart, to the gills (as it does in modern fish). Over the course of evolution, as the neck extended and the heart became lower in the body, the laryngeal nerve was caught on the wrong side of the heart. Natural selection gradually lengthened the nerve by tiny increments to accommodate, resulting in the circuitous route now observed. (11) However, there’s no reason at all to suggest a reason as to why an intelligent designer would create such a professedly illogical route for a nerve.

Perhaps the most obvious evidence for evolution by natural selection is the fact that it has been observed. One of many examples is Dr. Richard E. Lenski’s long-term experiment with e.coli. He started off with 12 identical populations of asexual e.coli, and by changing the environments in which the populations were living, induced many evolutionary adaptations in them due to beneficial random mutations. Other observations include the evolution of elephants – ivory hunters obviously kill elephants with larger tusks, which means that smaller-tusked individuals may be at an evolutionary advantage. And, that’s exactly what we see – the Uganda Game Department, for example, published data showing that, over just 3 decades, the average tusk size of the elephants, most likely due to ivory hunting, decreased, as elephants who had smaller tusks had a larger chance of reproducing. Another observation of evolution before our very eyes is the case of Italian wall lizards – in 1971, biologists moved five adult pairs of Italian wall lizards from their home island of Pod Kopiste, in the South Adriatic Sea, to the neighboring island of Pod Mrcaru. Decades later, Duncan Irschick, a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst says that “striking differences in head size and shape, increased bite strength and the development of new structures in the lizard’s digestive tracts were noted after only 36 years, which is an extremely short time scale.” This was directly because of the change in the environment that the lizards were living in – observed changes in head morphology were caused by adaptation to a different food source. (12) According to Irschick, lizards on the barren island of Pod Kopiste were well-suited to catching mobile prey, feasting mainly on insects. Life on Pod Mrcaru, where they had never lived before, offered them an abundant supply of plant foods, including the leaves and stems from native shrubs. As a result, Professor Irschick observed that “individuals on Pod Mrcaru have heads that are longer, wider and taller than those on Pod Kopiste, which translates into a big increase in bite force… Because plants are tough and fibrous, high bite forces allow the lizards to crop smaller pieces from plants, which can help them break down the indigestible cell walls.”

The geographical distribution of animals also illustrates how much better the explanatory power of evolution by natural selection is compared to creationism or ID. For instance, kangaroos and other marsupials are only found in Australia, an observation that can easily be explained by evolution by natural selection. By contrast, according to creationism, there was a massive flood 4000 years ago which wiped out every organism on the planet bar two of each kind. After the flood was over, the animals disembarked from the Ark in the Middle East. So, why did all the kangaroos go to Australia? And, why do we not find a single fossil of a kangaroo anywhere between the Middle East and Australia?

Notes

1. James McCarter, “Evolution is a Winner – for Breakthroughs and Prizes”, National Center for Science Education, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2005-10-09.
2. MacFadden, B. J. (1999), Fossil Horses: Systematics, Paleobiology, and Evolution of the Family Equidae. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47708-5
3. MacFadden, B. J. (1976). “Cladistic analysis of primitive equids with notes on other perissodactyls”, Syst. Zool 25 (1): 1–14. Doi: 10.2307/2412774. JSTOR 2412774
4. Alan Hamilton Turner, Peter J. Makovicky and Mark Norell (2012). “A review of dromaeosaurid systematics and paravian phylogeny”, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 371: 1–206 doi:10.1206/748.1
5. Ward, C. V.; Kimbel, W. H.; Johanson, D. C. (2011). “Complete Fourth Metatarsal and Arches in the Foot of Australopithecus afarensis”. Science 331 (6018): 750.
6. Chen FC, Li WH (2001). “Genomic Divergences between Humans and Other Hominoids and the Effective Population Size of the Common Ancestor of Humans and Chimpanzees”, American Journal of Human Genetics 68 (2): 444–56.
7. Petrov DA, Hartl DL (2000). “Pseudogene evolution and natural selection for a compact genome”, J Hered, 91 (3): 221–7.
8. Yunis and Prakash; Prakash, O (1982). “The origin of man: a chromosomal pictorial legacy”. Science 215 (4539): 1525–1530
9. Ijdo, J. W.; Baldini, A; Ward, DC; Reeders, ST; Wells, RA (1991). “Origin of human chromosome 2: an ancestral telomere-telomere fusion”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 88 (20): 9051–5.
10. Lurquin PF, Stone L (2006). Genes, Culture, and Human Evolution: A Synthesis. Blackwell Publishing Incorporated. p. 79, ISBN 1-4051-5089-0
11. Dawkins, Richard (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Bantam Press, pp. 364–365. ISBN 978-1-4165-9478-9.
12. Dawkins, Richard (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Bantam Press, pp. 113-114. ISBN 978-1-4165-9478-9; see also Johnson, K, “Lizards Rapidly Evolve after Introduction to Island”, National Geographic, April 21st 2009.

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Positive Atheism?

It is often posited that one cannot ‘prove a negative’. To the contrary, in the case of a theistic god’s existence, this is not entirely correct. Atheists can indeed point out logical inconsistencies between theism and the universe itself. The most well-known of these arguments is the Problem of Evil, whether it is the logical argument or the evidential argument:

  1. God is said to exist
  2. God is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
  3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
  4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
  5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.
  6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.
  7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
  8. Evil exists (logical contradiction)

C: Therefore, God does not exist (?)

The conclusion may, on the surface, seem reasonable. Nevertheless – as one always can with an unfalsifiable claim – theists have come up with a few objections to this argument. These are usually called theodicies. (Clearly, one could object to premise 2, but a classical monotheist would not do this). 

The best known — and the most used — objection to the Problem of Evil is the Free Will Argument. It states that evil is the price that we have to pay for our free will, and that humans can be evil as a result of our free will. However, this does not account for natural evils, such as natural disasters – it only accounts for moral evils. Therefore, proponents of the free will argument can either invoke a supremely evil entity, such as Satan, or argue that natural evil (as well as moral evil) brings out good human virtues such as compassion. 

An invocation of Satan seems unnecessary and flawed: if God is omnipotent, why doesn’t he stop Satan from inflicting evil on the world? Combining the Satan-hypothesis with the ‘greater good’ hypothesis may seem reasonable, but why would God need Satan to inflict evil on the world if the question of evil has already been answered with a combination of free will and a ‘greater good’? Therefore, it seems unreasonable to suggest that it is the work of Satan.

Thus, we are at a point where the best theistic explanation for any kind of evil and suffering is free will and greater good combined.

Firstly, I will contest the concept that we have ultimate free will in the first place. That God is unable to intervene as a result of our free will necessarily follows, and I will be alluding to this idea. Just to illustrate this idea, god cannot stop a car knocking somebody over because the person in the car has the same amount of free will as the victim. So, do we really have free will? Here are some reasons to think that we do not:

1. Human beings cannot violate the laws of physics. God, described as the creator, must have created these laws of physics. If I wanted to violate the laws of physics, I simply could not do so. Therefore, one could argue either that free will does not exist, or that God has given us limited free will, which I shall be mentioning a bit later.

2. This is again due to the laws of nature, but we cannot choose whether we sleep or not, for in the end, we will fall unconscious. 

3. In all of the monotheistic texts, did God not intervene on numerous occasions? Take the Bible, where God, without consulting almost every single living thing on the planet, unleashes a flood which wipes them off the face of the Earth. Moreover, has Jesus not already redeemed us all of our sins, before we even committed them? Did I ask for that? No, it seems that from what I’ve read of the Bible, if I do not accept it, I’ll face eternal punishment in everlasting fire. God has been said to intervene, and this is surely a violation of our free will. Why does he not intervene now when terrible suffering occurs? In any case, I find it amazing that theists continually neglect the teachings of their scriptures when in debate.

4. This follows from (3), but knowledge of God’s supposed existence, as billions on this planet claim to have, will surely influence their decisions. Do we really have free will, or guided will?

With regard to the first objection of the Free Will Argument, that we seem to have limited free will, why did God not place further limits on our free will? Why allow somebody like Hitler to come to power, who caused misery not just in his own country but in the whole world. He can be said to be the direct cause of World War 2, a war which killed millions of people. Did any greater good come from this? I think more evil than good came from it. What happened afterwards? The Cold War. It wasn’t, as they said after World War 1, ‘the war to end all wars’. Evil, suffering and murder still continued on. 

William L. Rowe had a similar thought, when he came up with this:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

He also gave this example which should remind us that other animals suffer and this goes largely unnoticed by human beings:

“In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.”

Considering all of these objections to the Free Will Argument, I contend that a lack of belief in a god due to the Problem of Evil is certainly reasonable. There are, of course, other objections to the Problem of Evil, but these (such as original sin and Satan) have been dealt with many times. There is a reason that most theists resort to the Free Will Argument these days.

There are many different approaches that one can take to the Problem of Evil, this is just my take on it. The philosopher Stephen Law outlines an extremely thoughtful argument stating that the objections to the Problem of Evil can equally be applied to an evil-god, not just a good-god, and so there is not any more reason to believe in a theistic god than an evil-god.

I believe that positive atheism as justified by the Problem of Evil is just as potent as atheism justified by more scientific arguments. In fact, scientific arguments – which I’m generally more a fan of – merely say that it is unlikely that a god exists, whereas this argument – a more philosophical one – seems to demonstrate that a monotheistic god does not exist.

Defining atheism

For me, atheism is simply the lack of belief in a god. Defining atheism, for some reason, has caused a fair bit of argument, partially because it relates to who gets the burden of proof in a debate.

Nevertheless, there are those who say that most thinking atheists are actually agnostic. Indeed, upon reading or hearing my views, some would say that I am an agnostic.

I have a lack of belief in a god, but I am not saying that there definitely is no god. Similarly, I am sure that most theists wouldn’t be so arrogant (and vacuous) as to say that there definitely is a god, yet the fact remains that they believe in one and are still called theists.

Strictly, however, the terms should be as follows:

Gnostic theist – someone who is certain that there is a god.

Agnostic theist – someone who believes in a god but is not certain that there is one and is willing to concede that there may not be a god.

Agnostic atheist – someone who lacks belief in a god but is not certain that there is not a god and is willing to concede that there may be a god.

Gnostic atheist – someone who is certain that there is no god.

I, therefore, am an agnostic atheist, but I’m extremely close to being a gnostic atheist.

The fact remains, however, that those who believe in a god but are not certain about it are still called theists. I submit that the same should go for those who lack belief in a god but are not certain that there is no god – they should be called atheists.

As to which of those strict definitions is the more rational, I contend that it is the agnostic atheist position. Simply put, this is because there is no evidence for the existence of any god, although I have many other reasons not to believe in a god. As a result, the agnostic theist position is not reasonable and therefore the gnostic theist position is almost certainly not reasonable.

However, the gnostic atheist position is hardly rational either, because there exists a possibility, however small, that there is a god. Likewise, there exists a possibility that there exists a tooth fairy. Although, as we grow up, we find that the pound coin under our pillows was put there by our parents, but what if our parents’ minds were being controlled while putting the coin under the pillow, for example.

Therefore, in conclusion, I am strictly both an agnostic atheist and an agnostic a-toothfairyist.

God, Nothing and the Beginning of the Universe

Is an invocation of God necessary to explain the universe’s existence? Have scientists already found the answer to the nature of the beginning of the universe?

Let us deal with the religious god first, before moving onto a deistic god.

Does it not raise the slightest suspicion that a version of God has been fabricated time after time leading to a great number of conflicting and contradictory ideas, known as religions?

There are those who say that none of these religions are true, but there are also those who say that all of the religions are correct about at least one thing: there is a God. The former, I submit, are completely rational in saying that none of these religions are true, and the latter can be quickly dismissed if you look at the reasons that religion came about from a psychological or anthropological standpoint, which I shall not go into here. 

With that in mind, as well as other reasons not to believe in the metaphysical claims of religion, we can dismiss the theistic god and move onto a broader definition of god. This includes the deist god. Believers in a deist god may simply be astonished by the universe’s very existence, and think that there must have been some cause as to why the universe exists. Well, in response to these people, science yet again has many plausible ideas when it comes to how the universe came into existence – none of these explanations require a supernatural entity. 

For instance, take Professor Lawrence Krauss’s hypothesis of a universe from nothing, which basically states that our kind of universe was an inevitable result of the laws of quantum mechanics. This is over-simplifying it, but it shall suffice for now. If one has been intelligent and insightful enough to have got as far as asking the question ‘Why/How does the universe exist?’, then one invariably, after hearing scientific explanations, asks where the laws of physics came from. The same could apply to Stephen Hawking’s no boundary proposal.

Well, I had an idea – cosmic natural selection. This could apply to universes, but also to the laws of physics. What if, similar to evolution by natural selection, laws of physics ‘died’ out if they did not have good characteristics, such as producing a universe to operate within.

In the end, this too seems like an unsatisfactory explanation, for people would then want to know WHY there is anything for this cosmic natural selection to choose from in the first place. So, why these laws rather than any other:

1. We could invoke the strong anthropic principle along with the multiverse, and insist that there are different universes with different laws of physics. Well then, where did the multiverse come from? It may be eternal.

2. Perhaps these laws, including the laws of quantum mechanics, simply had to be. They may be eternal.

3. Or, we could recognise that the laws of physics are simply human constructs designed to  describe nature. Perhaps things just happened in this particular way and, as a consequence, we’re here to describe ‘this particular way’. Recall that Heisenberg demonstrated that things are very uncertain, so perhaps ‘this particular way’ was just random and indeterministic.

In any case, physics is most certainly not finished working on the question of the beginning of the universe. Physicists haven’t managed to get a Theory of Everything yet, which brings me to my next point.

One could always invoke a deistic god, but this deistic god would still be unfalsifiable. And what does the falsification principle tell us to do with unfalsifiable claims? Dismiss them. Furthermore, as Isaac Asimov said, ‘to surrender to ignorance and call it god has always been premature, and it remains premature today’. To invoke a deist god would be intellectually lazy, and what good would it do? It’s the equivalent of saying ‘I don’t know’. Moreover, it wouldn’t affect your life in the slightest, for it’s highly unlikely that an Aristotelian-like Prime Mover would care about whether you prayed to him, what days you prayed to him on, which foods you eat, who you look at (Jesus could commit you of facecrime, as described in the New Testament), and what you think. 

In conclusion, we should be patient and wait for the verdict of science, if there is ever going to be a verdict. Even if there isn’t, it doesn’t mean we should use a deist god to explain the universe, never mind a theist god.