Archive for the ‘1800s’ category

The failure of Intelligent Design

February 18, 2011

“Were there no example in the world of contrivance except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator.  It could never be gotten rid of; because it could not be accounted for by any other, supposition, which did not contradict all the principles we possess of knowledge.[i]

–William Paley, Natural Theology, 1857

“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.  Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple…can be shown to exist…then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.[ii]

– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.”[iii] 

–Michael Behe, 1996.

Charles Darwin refuted the teleological argument from design in 1859.  Apparently Behe didn’t get the memo.  Through his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection, Darwin accomplished what earlier evolutionists could not.  Unlike previous theorists such as Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, Darwin (and Alfred Russel Wallace working with him) provided a working mechanism for evolution. In short, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection replaced Paley’s divine watchmaker with a blind watchmaker; the selective force of nature.  Following the strengthening of Darwinian theory by intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, especially after the development of the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology, evolutionary theory effectively replaced “Design” as a creative force.

Natural Selection, therefore, is able to explain organs and features of organisms formerly relegated to creation by an “intelligent Designer”, or a “divine watchmaker” of sorts.  Regardless of whether it is Paley’s eye or Behe’s bacterial flagellum, evolutionary theory effectively explains the development of these organs and features.  Therefore, the “Watchmaker hypothesis,” in both its historical and modern forms, does not present an effective challenge to the efficacy of evolutionary theory.  Thus, the argument from “Design”, or “irreducible complexity”, is not an adequate tool with which to challenge evolutionary theory.  Both fail to undermine the strength of evolutionary theory on closer inspection.  Although one might ask “what good is 2/10ths of an eye?”, any working “eye” is better than no eye at all.  Even if we are referring to just a few light-sensitive cells that are useful for an organism to detect light or predators, these cells will provide a definite survival advantage compared to organisms that lack these cells. In time, variation and selection can and do build more complex organs through differential survival rates.  In the case of “irreducibly complex” organs, the key flaw in Behe’s argument is the fact that he fails to account for the fact that so-called “irreducibly complex” organs can and do have other uses if a component or group of components are removed from them.  Natural selection works by jury-rigging and adaptation of available features, not by the design of new ones.  Therefore, the “watchmaker hypothesis” fails on all counts.

Another key aspect of modern arguments from design is the “fine-tuning” argument for the existence of the universe. This argument, stated simply, alleges that since the universe appears to be “finely tuned” for the existence of life as we know it (i.e. cosmological constants are exactly what they need to be for life to exist as we know it), that the universe therefore must be designed.  While this argument seems cogent at first glance, it is, in fact, fatally flawed.   In fact, the apparent “fine tuning” of the universe is exactly what one would expect if life evolved.  Natural selection produces organisms that are well-fit to their environment.  If life did, in fact, evolve, it did so in this universe, on this planet, governed by the constraints placed upon it by the existing cosmological constants.  You do not build a vehicle that sinks quickly but has really good wheels if you are only going to be using it in an ocean.  Rather, you construct a vehicle that is well-adapted for oceanic travel.  Natural selection works the same way.  It is governed by physics and chemistry as well as biology and ecology.  Natural selection, in short, is as much a slave to cosmological constraints as organisms are to their dietary requirements.  Thus, the cosmological argument is as much a failure as the “watchmaker hypothesis”.

Another key argument advanced by Intelligent Design proponents can be described in the following manner. The proteins/molecules/cells, etc. that make up life are extremely complex.  It is extremely improbable that they developed through solely naturalistic means. Therefore, these features must be designed.  However, this approach is philosophically and scientifically flawed.  Scientists have done a decent job exploring the origin of life. Even though scientists have not definitively explained the origin of life, they have developed some tantalizing glimpses at possible explanations for this event. This topic is relatively complex, and a bit intensive for a short post, so if you’re interested I’ll refer you to the work of Robert Hazen as a first guide to this topic. See, for example, his book “Genesis“. I will focus on the philosophical flaw with this argument in this post.

The philosophical argument inherent to this portion of the Intelligent Design argument can be re-phrased in the following manner.  A million (pick your favorite large number here, and replace “A million” with it if you’d like) lottery tickets are sold for a lottery. One ticket must win.  Each ticket represents a possible combination of proteins (the building blocks of DNA).  The “winning ticket” is the actual combination generated by nature.  According to the Intelligent Design approach, since a million tickets (possible protein sequences/amino acids) exist, the chances of drawing the winning ticket are extremely low, and therefore no ticket will win.  However, we know this to be false; one ticket ultimately DOES win.  Therefore, as improbable as the development of DNA sequences was, by nature, it was at least possible.  And, in fact, there are possible ways to increase the probability of the development of complex protein sequences (Hazen discusses the possibility of proteins growing within the microstructures of carbonate rocks, a hypothesis which explains the extremely high proportion of “left-handed” amino acids). Therefore, the Intelligent Design perspective once again proves flawed.

Before closing this essay, I will mention a few other key claims/approaches fronted by Intelligent Design proponents. The first is Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, which fails miserably as a tool to supposedly discern design in nature (see critique here). The second is the claim that natural selection cannot “increase information” in a genome.  Here’s a rebuttal for that claim as well.  Finally, perhaps the most ridiculous claim advanced by Intelligent Design advocates such as Stephen Meyer is the claim that the “Cambrian Explosion” somehow undermines evolution.  This is the old “there are GAPS!!!  Gaps in the fossil record!” argument trotted back out to play. Even a cursory glance at modern paleontology proves such a claim irreparably flawed.  A good explanation of why such an argument is flawed can be found in one of my all time favorite books on transitional forms, Donald Prothero’s “Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters“.  For a good online critique of the “Cambrian Explosion” argument advanced by Design advocates, see Keith Miller’s article (part one here and part two).

Therefore, as demonstrated, upon closer inspection, the arguments against evolution advanced by Intelligent Design proponents consistently fail to withstand scrutiny.  I consciously avoided arguments from social ills in this post (“well evolution influenced Hitler, or communism, or what have you”) due to the extremely flawed nature of this type of argument.  What is more important is attacking so-called “science” of Intelligent Design.  As I’ve shown here, even a cursory critical glance at the pseudoscientific structure of Intelligent Design reveals massive and irreparable flaws. Therefore, Intelligent Design fails as a science.

Works Cited:
Behe, M.  Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to evolution. Free Press, New York. 1996.

Darwin, CR. The Origin of Species.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge.  First Ed. facsimile, 2002 (1859)

Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected From the Appearances of Nature. Gould and Lincoln, Boston, 1857

Happy Darwin Day 2011!

February 12, 2011

February 12th, 1809.

Two individuals are born an ocean apart, in vastly different economic settings.  One, an American, is born in a one-room cabin in Kentucky (just west of the old Colonial realm).  The other, a Englishman, is born in Shropshire, England, to a prominent doctor, himself the son of a major 19th Century intellectual, and the daughter of a prominent British pottery maker.  These individuals, of course, are Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Although Darwin and Lincoln never directly corresponded, the two share more than a common birth-date.  Both were considered to be lazy during their formative years. More importantly, both were ardent abolitionists.  Lincoln grew into abolitionism from a more neutral position, ultimately issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863.  Lincoln, is remembered as much for the American Civil War as he is for ending slavery in America.  Charles Darwin became an abolitionist as a result of both first-hand experience and, possibly, family upbringing (the Wedgewoods were well-known British abolitionists).

Darwin and Lincoln, then, share a common historical legacy.  Both rejected slavery, Darwin for moral reasons, Lincoln perhaps for both moral and pragmatic reasons.  However, the two individuals are remembered differently by the general public.  Lincoln is often praised (at least in Northern America) for his decisive moves to both preserve the American nation through the Civil War and for ending American slavery.  Darwin, however, is condemned in many circles for his role in decentralizing the biological status of the human species through his theory of Descent with Modification by means of Natural Selection.

Does Darwin deserve to be condemned?  By publishing his theory, Darwin was not attempting to unilaterally destroy theism.  The Origin was published in a wider intellectual and historical context that already included multiple texts advocating “evolutionary” thought. Some famous predecessors to the Origin include Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and Lamarck’s evolutionary model (first documented in 1800).  Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also published an evolutionary account of life in a book titled Zoonomia during the 1790s.  Natural Selection, then, was born into an intellectual scene which was already used to theories of evolution.  However, Darwin and Wallace’s Natural Selection had one feature that Lamarck, Chambers, and Erasmus Darwin’s work lacked: a working mechanism.  Therefore, Darwin (and to a lesser extent in the public realm Wallace) are remembered (wrongly) by many as the first evolutionists.  As a result, they are most often condemned for the idea of evolution.

Although evolutionary theory DOES have major implications for theology, evolutionary theory does not, in fact, disprove religion.  If one takes an extreme reductionist approach to theology and philosophy, evolutionary theory can be used in an attempt to reduce philosophy and theology to a mere consequence of physical and chemical forces.  However, as religious belief is a non-disprovable hypothesis (God could be out there, regardless of whether evidence exists for or against God’s existence), it is impossible to disprove God through mere science.  In fact, some theological positions incorporate both a relatively traditional conception of God and evolutionary theory.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church does not have an issue with evolution; they accept evolution as valid science, yet they also retain a role for creative acts by God.  Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God provides a good example of one Roman Catholic biologist attempting to achieve a harmonious relationship between God and evolution, and is a worthwhile read.

Another key criticism of Darwin and evolution is that it creates social ills.  Evolutionary theory has been blamed for racism, the Holocaust, abortion, crossdressing, and numerous other things by its opponents.  However, such an approach is philosophically and scientifically unsophisticated.   Nuclear weaponry utilizes physics, so does that mean that Newton, one of the fathers of modern physics, is responsible for nuclear proliferation? Of course not! If I tried to make that statement, any sane person would (rightly) declare me to be a fool.  Scientific theories are not moral or immoral.  By nature, they do not have a moral stance (they are amoral).  They can be used for moral or immoral means, but a scientific theory, on its own, does not have a moral position.  Therefore, to blame evolution for society’s ills is at best an attempt to put a bandage on an underlying cause.  Darwinian theory is not, in itself, responsible for its application within society (for good causes or bad).  Yes, evolutionary theory was developed by human agents operating in specific places and times.  Therefore, there is an inherent human aspect to evolutionary theory. However, this human aspect is present in ALL scientific theories.  It is not the scientific theory that is the issue. It is how people choose to use it for extrascientific purposes.

Therefore, its time for society to stop condemning Darwin.  If you’ve got a problem with something in society, stop trying to blame people who are at best indirectly related to the root of the problem and actually attempt to fix the issue.  Let’s remember Darwin for what he actually DID contribute to society, rather than condemn him for the problems his theory allegedly caused.  The Darwinian Revolution is one of the key scientific revolutions in modern times.  And it is arguably the final step in the Newtonian Revolution.  First, Newton demonstrated that the universe operates according to fixed laws.  Then the heliocentrists come along and demonstrate that the Earth is not at the center of the universe.  Finally, Darwin comes along and places humanity right where it belongs, squarely within nature, as a part of nature rather than separate from it.  Although some might consider this step to be both theologically and scientifically radical, it is, to me, as elegant  to think of humanity as being intricately intertwined and tied to the rest of life on Earth as it is to think 0f humanity as somehow “above” and “separate from” nature.

The latter approach is flawed at its best, and dangerous at its worst. To forget that we are inherently and directly tied to the rest of the biosphere is to forget that our actions as a species have a direct, and often extreme, impact on that biosphere.  We are extremely capable of signing our own death warrants through our collective actions, and to accept that we are tied to the rest of the biosphere is to claim responsibility for our actions as well as for the wellbeing of life on Earth.  We are capable of destruction, yes, but we are also capable of preserving the small pockets of non-human life on this planet that we have not altered or destroyed.  This is one of the key lessons of the Darwinian Revolution, namely that the fate of the biosphere is inherently and directly responsible for our own fate as a species.

Darwinism, frankly, is not the root of all evil.  So let’s get over it, and fix the real problems facing this planet.  For me at least, crossdressing and atheism pale in comparison to starvation, homelessness, climate change, and the destruction of the biosphere.  First we need to fix the big problems facing humanity, and then we can argue about semantics.    Happy Darwin Day 2011, and don’t forget to remember Lincoln for a moment as well!

Megaloceros and orthogenesis

September 24, 2010

Megaloceros on display at AMNH

Megaloceros, commonly (and wrongly) known as the “Irish Elk” offers a good example of an organism utilized as proof of orthogenesis during the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century.  During this period, paleontologists utilized the term “orthogenesis” to explain trends in the fossil record.  Under the model of orthogenesis, once a species begins to develop, it continues to develop along that line and exhibits an inability to stop this process of development.  In the case of Megaloceros, the argument was structured such that through the process of orthogenesis, Megaloceros’ antlers grew to extreme sizes.  Ultimately, this unchecked antler growth caused the extinction of Megaloceros.  This example offers a good model to demonstrate why orthogenesis does not work.  A trait isn’t going to survive if it causes a problem for the survival of the organism in question.  Ultimately, even if selective pressures do support the development of larger antlers in Megaloceros, the antlers won’t get large enough to cause extinction.  If an individual Megaloceros has antlers so large that they end up getting caught in trees (part of the orthogenesis argument), then it’s not going to have much success with reproduction. Sure, a few individuals with extremely large antlers might get to reproduce, but as a rule, most of these will, in fact, be weaned from the gene pool.  This is why orthogenesis does not work.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out Stephen Jay Gould’s article “The misnamed, mistreated, and misunderstood Irish Elk.” The article is available in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin.

neat source; James Hall obituary

October 30, 2009

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may remember my “In the Footsteps of Giants” post.  In it, I mention New York State Geologist James Hall.  Interestingly enough, his New York Times obituary is accessible online (click here, PDF format).  Hall was an interesting figure, and his obituary sheds more light on his life.  Hall worked closely with the likes of Charles Lyell and Louis Agassiz, and published some noteworthy works of his own (especially focusing on the geology of New York).  The obituary is short, and well worth spending a minute or two to read.

Hugh Falconer

July 28, 2009

According to Stephen Jay Gould (2002 p. 745), Hugh Falconer might be remembered as one of the greatest Victorian paleontologists if he had not died before publishing major works.  However, unfortunately for Falconer’s legacy, this was not the case.  Falconer died at the age of 57 in January 1865, during the last year of the violent and bloody US Civil War (for general biographical sketch, click here).  Gould obviously held Falconer in high regards, even though most people today have never heard his name.  Let’s take a look at why.

Falconer performed his most recognized work in India, a place he was transported to by the British East India Company in 1830 (see biographical sketch).  He is remembered, if at all, for his work on the mammalian fauna of the Siwalik (also spelled Sivalik in some texts) Hills (see for example Mayor 2001 p. 133, Chakrabarti  2004 p. 72, Gould 2002 p. 745). Through his work on the Siwalik Hills fauna and his later 1863 monograph on fossil elephants, Falconer observed and noted the prevalence of “stasis” in the fossil record.  By the publication of the 1863 monograph, Falconer had accepted the general premises of Darwin’s model (although he was critical of it previously…more on this later). If the term stasis brings to mind Eldredge and Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibria, it should.  Eldredge and Gould’s work on punctuated equilibria was essentially a re-discovery of what Falconer had already observed; Falconer noted long-term stability of species, with an occasional sudden appearance of new species.  Thus, Falconer noted a key observation of punctuated equilibrium, namely that:

“a local pattern of abrupt repalcement does not signify macromutational transformation in situ, but an origin of the later species from an ancestral population living elsewhere, followed by migration into the local region.” (Gould 2002 748)

More specifically, Falconer was referring to European fossil elephants, and placed their likely ancestral stock in India.  Falconer started out critical of Darwin, so much that when Darwin sent Falconer a copy of The Origin of Species, Darwin noted in a letter that included with the book that:

“Lord, how you will long to crucify me alive! I fear it will produce no other effect on you; but if it should stagger you in ever so slight a degree, in this case, I am fully convinced that you will become, year after year, less fixed in your belief in the immutability of species.  With this audacious and presumptuous conviction, I remain, my dear Falconer, Yours most truly, Charles Darwin” (quoted in Gould 2002 p. 746)

This passage illustrates a few realities.  First, Darwin valued Falconer’s judgement (in fact, Falconer was one of the first scientists who Darwin described his theory to; see Gould 2002 p. 746).  It also implies that Darwin and Falconer were on somewhat friendly terms.  Desmond and Moore’s (Desmond and Moore 1991) biography of Darwin hints at this friendship as well, as do letters between Falconer and Darwin, for example Falconer offering specimens to Darwin, etc.  Something deeper is also at work here.  In Falconer, we see an early critic of Darwin who has been convinced of the strength and viability of Darwin’s model.  While Falconer still viewed evolution differently than Darwin to a degree, Falconer had warmed to the strength of Natural Selection.

Falconer is less remembered for his views on Archaeopteryx.  In 1863, Falconer wrote to Darwin, stating:

You were never more missed—at any rate by me—for there has been this grand Darwinian case of the Archaeopteryx for you and me to have a long jaw about…You are not to put your faith in the slip-shod and hasty account of it given to the Royal Society.  It is a much more astounding creature—than has entered into the conception of the describer” (Falconer, 1863 in Correspondences vol. 11 p.5)

Thus, Falconer was aware of the relevance of the find to Darwin’s work.  The above quote hints that Falconer may have viewed Archaeopteryx as some sort of “missing link”, perhaps between reptiles and birds.  This passage also hints at a friendly relationship between Falconer and Darwin (for more on Darwin and Archaeopteryx, see my post on the topic here).  The passage also hints at some brewing troubles between Owen and Falconer; Falconer viewed Owen’s description of Archaeopteryx as “not…well done” (Footnote 10, here)

One other facet of Falconer’s career that is often overlooked is his rough relationship with some other Victorian scientists, most notably Richard Owen.  As Darwin wrote in his 1887 Autobiography (quoted here):

“Poor dear Falconer….had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest.  His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed.  When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day, and so it has proved.”

Falconer had fought with Owen over some fossil specimens, as evidenced in this letter from Charles Darwin to James Dwight Dana. The footnotes to this letter are instructive in this case, with one stating that:

CD probably refers to Owen’s palaeontological work on the fossil elephant Elephas columbi, and the fossil rhinoceros Rhinoceros leptorhinus. With respect to E. columbi, Owen had overlooked Falconer’s description of the fossil elephant and had renamed it E. texianus. Falconer interpreted this move as an attempt by Owen to usurp his priority in the description of the fossil, by substituting another, and in his view inferior, name (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 3 January [1863], n. 1). Falconer’s critique of Owen’s E. texianus was published in Falconer 1863a, pp. 45–9 (see also letter to Hugh Falconer, 5 [and 6] January [1863], and letter from Hugh Falconer, 8 January [1863]). Falconer may also have told CD of his doubts regarding Owen’s identification of Clacton, Tuscan, and Rhenish specimens of fossil rhinoceros as R. leptorhinus (see Owen 1846b and Falconer 1868, 2: 317–20). “ (again, letter and notes available here)

Falconer challenged other scientists as well.  For example, he debated with Huxley over methods of paleontology (see letter between Darwin and Hooker, here).  Falconer also butted heads with Charles Lyell (see a second Darwin and Hooker letter, here).  Falconer was clearly a man who was not afraid to ruffle some feathers.

However, in a society rich with scientific visionaries, it is all too often the case that some individuals get overlooked.  Hugh Falconer is one of these individuals.  Mention the words “Victorian” and “scientist” in a sentence, and most people will think of Darwin, Owen, Huxley, Lyell, Wallace, or some other well-known scientist.  Falconer operated in the same scientific arenas as these men, and often butted heads with some of them.  He was a relatively close friend of Darwin (see Desmond and Moore 1991 p. 528 on Darwin’s reaction to Falconer’s death for example).  He anticipated a modern development in evolutionary theory.  Yet hardly anyone knows his name. 



Works Cited:

Chakrabarti, P. Western Science in Modern India, Permanent Black, 2004

Desmond, A. and Moore, J.  Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist.  WW Norton & Company, New York, 1991.

Falconer, H. letter of Jan. 3, 1863 to Charles Darwin.  In The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 11, edited by F. Furkhardt, DM Porter, SA Dean, JR Tophan, and S. Wilmot.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

Gould, SJ.  The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.  Belknap Harvard, Cambridge, 2002

Mayor, A. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton,2001

Was Darwin Racist?

June 16, 2009

By today’s standards, sure.  Charles Darwin referred to the Fuegians he encountered while on the Beagle (as well as other non-European peoples) as “savages”.  However, judging Darwin as a racist working from a “modern” perspective is not only bad historical practice, but it is also doing a disservice to Darwin’s views in general.  If one wishes to truly answer the question mentioned in the title of this post, namely “was Darwin racist?”, it is necessary to consider the question in context, alongside the views of other 19th Century Europeans, not alongside the views of today’s racial moderates.  By using today’s standards on race to condemn Darwin as a racist is merely to remind yourself that Darwin lived during the 1800s.  Now let’s take a look at the question in context with the time period in question.

Charles Darwin, born on the same date as Abraham Lincoln, though an ocean away, was vehemently anti-slavery.  His family background, especially on the Wedgewood side, is an abolitionist one.  In fact, it has been recently suggested by Desmond and Moore in their new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (review available here), that a hatred of slavery helped to shape Darwin’s views on evolution. Working with Desmond and Moore’s definitive work, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, it’s easy to find examples of Darwin’s hatred of slavery.  For example, Darwin saw slavery as evil enough to condemn in the final pages of what would become his Voyage of the Beagle (as quoted p. 329 Desmond and Moore):

I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave country.  To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco [Brazil], I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not suspect that some poor slave was being tortured…Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal.  I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean.”

However, while this statement can be rightly taken as a hatred of slavery, a study of Darwin the man suggests a different plausible reading of this statement.  Perhaps Darwin hated the cruelty of slavery, but not the racism behind it.  Darwin was, after all, a gentle man, who described feeling a sense of guilt late in life at having kicked a puppy as a child.  To fully understand Darwin’s position on race, we have to look at situations where Darwin is discussing topics other than the evils of slavery. 

Perhaps the most notable such statement of this type is to be found in the Origin of Species, p.488, first edition, where Darwin (perhaps cryptically to today’s reader) “[l]ight will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” What seems like merely an allusion to the fact that Darwin’s theory would encompass human evolution can be read, in context, as something more.  The fact that Darwin is referring to a single origin of mankind stands as a direct refutation to polygenist schools of thought which argued that the different races of man were different species. Louis Agassiz, the last great Creationist to garner a large amount of scientific prestige, was a member of this school of thought, which was used to justify slavery, among other things. Thus, what is often read as Darwin desanctifying humans by relating them directly to an evolutionary sequence can be read in the reverse direction, with Darwin elevating “savages” and slaves to the same species as white Europeans.  Darwin, while confident that there were different “stages of civilization”, from “savage” to Englishman, took a step against a strain of Victorian racist thought by uniting all humans under the same linaeage. Therefore, while the Origin of Species (rightly so) stands as an important work in the history of popular science, it also serves as a direct refutation to racist attitudes of Darwin’s time. 

Thus, the next time someone accuses Darwin of being openly racist, ask them about his views on race.  Ask perhaps why they feel that way, and by what standard they are judging him.  As demonstrated by Darwin’s views on slavery and the “origin of man,” Darwin was a racial moderate by Victorian standards, not a racist.

Works cited:

Darwin, C.  On the Origin of Species, facsimile of 1st edition.  Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 2003.

Desmond, A. & Moore, J.  Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. W.W. Norton & Company. New York.1994

Archaeopteryx, cladistics, ghost taxa, and anti-evolution movements

May 18, 2009

Archaeopteryx is perhaps the best known “transitional fossil” in the sense of public recognition.  First discovered in Germany in 1861, 2 years after the publication of the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, it has been hailed as a transitional phase between reptiles and birds ever sense.  Darwin himself was aware of the existence of Archaeopteryx, and addressed this fossil in later editions of the Origin.  Consider the following passage from the 6th edition of the book:

“[A]nd still more recently, that strange bird, the Archeopteryx [sic], with a long lizard-like tail, bearing a pair of feathers on each joint, and with its wings furnished with two free claws, has been discovered in the oolitic slates of Solenhofen.  Hardly any recent disc overy shows more forcibly than this , how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world.” (Darwin 1859:444  see 6th edition here).

While Darwin at least mentions the existence of Archaeopteryx here, it is in a letter from paleontologist Hugh Falconer to Charles Darwin, from Jan. 3, 1863, where we begin to see the true significance of the find:

You were never more missed—at any rate by me—for there has been this grand Darwinian case of the Archaeopteryx for you and me to have a long jaw about…You are not to put your faith in the slip-shod and hasty accoutn of it given to the Royal Society.  It is a much more astounding creature—than has entered into the conception of the describer” (Falconer, 1863 in Correspondences vol. 11 p.5)

Falconer’s statements here tell us a number of things.  First, that he saw Archaeopteryx as a valid “transitional” fossil, or as evidence in favor of evolutionary theory.  Second, it is obvious here that Falconer had a large amount of respect for Charles Darwin as a scientist.  It is worth noting here that Falconer discovered stasis in the fossil record as a valid trend over a century before Eldredge and Gould’s 1972 work on Punctuated Equilibria, thus rendering Eldredge and Gould as a re-discovery, rather than a discovery, of stasis.  But I digress. 

Moving back to a discussion of Archaeopteryx, the genus was held as a transition between lagosuchids and birds for the first half of the 20th century.  This was largely due to a gappy lagosuchid and dinosaurian fossil record; upon more fossil discoveries, the Lagosuchid line was shown to be  too specialized to be ancestors of birds.  In fact, largely as a result of the work of John Ostrom on Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx, dinosaurs were suggested as the ancestors of birds (for more info on this, see Bakker 1986: 298-322).  With the discovery  of more fossils, especially feathered dinosaurs from China, the dinosaur-bird connection has become well-accepted among paleontologists (for more info, click here).

So why are dinosaurs accepted as bird ancestors by scientists today?  As early as the latter half of the 19th Century, TH Huxley noted similarities between dinosaurs and birds.  However, to fully appreciate the modern state of Archaeopteryx, one must look at recent publications.  While there is some debate as to the exact place of birds within the classification of Theropods (bipedal, often predatory, dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex), birds are almost universally accepted among paleontologists as a form of derived theropod, generally within the maniraptorian segment of the group (see Benton 1992 p. 22). Looking specifically at Archaeopteryx, let’s consider some of the traits that suggest that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  The skeleton of Archaeopteryx is so similar to dinosaurs that the first specimen discovered was initially mistaken for a Compsognathus (a small type of theropod).  Archaeopteryx, as well as other theropods and birds, had a relatively unique mesotarsal joint (a part of the ankle), a half-moon shaped bone in the wrist (the semilunate carpal), gastralia, an s-shaped curve in the neck, and feathers.  Some more dinosaurian features of Archaeopteryx include conical teeth (similar to those of other early birds such as Hesperornis and Icthyornis), claws very similar in structure to those of dinosaurs such as Deinonychus, and a long bony tail (for more discussion, see Prothero 2007 p. 260). These similarities, among others (such as similarities in hip structure), suggest that birds did, in fact, evolve from dinosaurs.

 However, Archaeopteryx’s status as a “transitional fossil” is often attacked by anti-evolutionists. One of the most popular approaches to Archaeopteryx from this angle is to denigrate Archaeopteryx as a “mosiac form”, and compare it to the platypus (see Johnson1993:80-81).  This approach assumes that the shared characteristics between Dinosaurs, Birds, and Archaeopteryx are of little consequence, just like the bill of a platypus (after all, a platypus has a bill and lays eggs, but nobody calls it a bird!).  However, this approach showcases a large-scale misunderstanding of how paleontology and comparative anatomy work.  Archaeopteryx is not considered a “transitional form” solely because it has some bird-like features and some dinosaur-like features.  It is significant because some of its features are shared ONLY by Theropod dinosaurs and Birds.  A cladistics-based approach to Archaeopteryx will place Archaeopteryx between other “birds” and “dinosaurs” as a “transitional form” (for more on cladistics, click here). This is due to the fact that many features are shared only by Archaeopteryx, Theropods, and other birds, not because Archaeopteryx just “shares some charisteristics” with birds and dinosaurs.  Anti-evolutionists (either ID advocates or Creationists) are fond of using this “mosiac form” approach to fossil proofs of evolution, even though (as demonstrated) it illustrates a misunderstanding of paleontology and cladistics. 

One other objection often raised to the status of Archaeopteryx is the argument that since the dinosaurs that are claimed to be Archaeopteryx’s closest relatives were contemporaries of Archaeopteryx in the Jurassic period, Archaeopteryx cannot be a valid “transitional form”.   However, this argument is also weak.  Using the concept of ghost taxa, or taxa inferred in a cladistic tree from unique shared characteristics, scientists can infer the characteristics of “transitional forms” between Archaeopteryx and the dinosaurs it evolved from, for example.  While this approach assumes the validity of evolutionary theory, this is not a problem, due to the fact that evolutionary theory is uniformly accepted by biologists and paleontologists.  Biologists see natural selection operating on a daily basis, and paleontologists continuously find an ordered, linear sequence within the fossil record.  Combining these two lines of evidence (among many others), one can infer that evolution does, in fact, work.  Therefore, the assumption of evolution as a scientific fact does not present a serious problem.

If Archaeopteryx’s status as a “transitional fossil” is so well-accepted by scientists (note that by saying Archaeopteryx is a traqnsitional form, I am not saying that it necessarily evolved into birds, but rather that it showcases features unique to birds and dinosaurs, which illustrates that dinosaur-bird evolution has taken place, either through Archaeopteryx or some other closely related group of early birds), then why are people still trying to destroy it’s status?  Archaeopteryx is not the problem here.  Evolution itself isn’t even necessarily the problem.  The problem is often that Archaeopteryx, evolution, and a 4.6 billion-year-old earth are seen, at least by some, to threaten the percieved “special place” of humanity in nature. This conflict is the root of the percieved conflict between science and religion.  What is at stake here, from the perspective of Creationists especially, is not science, but rather humanity’s special place, elevated above the rest of the natural world.

Works Cited:

Bakker, RT.  The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction. Citadel Press Books, New York, 1986

Benton, MJ. Origin and Interrelationships of Dinosaurs, in The Dinosauria, edited by DB Weishampel, P. Dodson, and H. Osmolska.  University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.  p. 11-30.

Darwin, C.  The Origin of Species. 6th edition, reprinted by Castle Books, Edison, 2004. First edition originally published 1859.

Falconer, H. letter of Jan. 3, 1863 to Charles Darwin.  In The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 11, edited by F. Furkhardt, DM Porter, SA Dean, JR Tophan, and S. Wilmot.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

Johnson, PE.  Darwin on Trial.InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1993

Prothero, DR.  Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.