Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Problem With Evolution

There is none, really. Don't tell me you thought I suddenly switched camps and started believing all the creationist / intelligent design nonsense? Of course I haven't, and of course those are as corrupt attempts at destroying any chance of having a remotely reasonable society as you can possibly imagine. Especially the intelligent design lot who are not just intellectually, but also morally challenged. Those with unashamedly creationist agenda at least have the guts to admit they are speaking from the position of religious zealots devoid of any attempt to claim scientific or even purely logical high ground.

So then, what is the reason for the statement I have just made about evolution having a problem?

Well, for one, I don't actually think it's the evolution which has a problem. The nice old lady is doing quite fine, thank you very much. The problem lies, at least quite often, with those good souls trying to convince the world (and the proverbial dog) that evolution is not just a scientific theory (and please go have a look at what a "scientific theory" actually means before starting to cast stones; [edit: link added]), but a fact proven beyond any reasonable doubt, and a process that has been going on since time immemorial (literally), is still going strong, and will likely only stop once the universe cools down and dies out completely (or re-collapses into another primordial fireball - make your pick).

And what the problem is with these explanations?

Let me start with one I have half deliberately created in the paragraph above. If you're still wondering what it is - and it has nothing to do with saying evolution is a (proven) scientific theory as that one is very easily defended - it is saying evolution is a "process". Of course, evolution is a process. This much is hopefully clear. However, remember also this is you, an evolutionist for want of a better word - trying to change the heart and mind of, say, a devout Muslim. Such a person may easily try and clutch to a - not entirely wrong - meaning of a process as a goal directed sequence of premeditated steps. And that, my evolutionist friend, is almost exactly what he already believes in! You have painted yourself in a corner and proven his misconceptions to him. Ouch! So, at first blush, try and avoid using the word "process" unless and until it is understood you are using it in its other, looser sense of a sequence of events, period (and even then you can't be sure the agreement is heartfelt).

Second, and much more important, problem is in the explanation and description of the process (see, I've done it again!) of natural selection. Too often we tend to take linguistic shortcuts and say things like "evolution, through the process of natural selection, chooses the variants which will leave the most offspring". Again, this sort of sentence - probably rightly! - makes the listener imagine evolution - and natural selection - as something forward looking and that implies an omniscient controlling and planning entity. For a creationist, this is as good as slamming you with a big QED hammer. It is also not quite how the evolution by means of natural selection works.

What happens, of course, is this: the current generation of a species consists of a multitude of very, very similar individuals, who are, however, subtly different through the chance mutations and/or normal genetic variation introduced in sexual reproduction; in the environment they inhabit some will fare better than the others and leave more offspring; this offspring, while not usually genetically identical, will be genetically more similar to the generation that reared them and thus likely to also be better equipped to the environment as it was when their parents were reproducing; in a slowly changing environment this will be a clear benefit, and we can say the species has evolved and become a little bit better at surviving. Note here - and don't forget to point it out to your interlocutors - that both evolution and natural selection only ever look backwards. Current generation of organisms always casts genetic dice when it reproduces. The best adapted of the current generation tend to leave more offspring. That offspring will be similar to their parents and thus better equipped to handle the environment their parents lived in. Should their own environment change dramatically they will probably fail (but the previous generation having cast genetic dice to an extent makes it possible that the current generation will have a few well adapted individuals).

And if you think I have repeated just myself in the paragraph above - I have, and deliberately. This is because this argument needs to be repeated over and over again (even if it means until the cows come home) until it becomes undeniably clear to all evolutionary challenged out there that there is no intent and looking forward in evolution and natural selection. Both always and only look back or, better yet, blindly (as in the watchmaker) amble forwards keeping what worked (see the trap I set myself here!) and shedding what doesn't. And this is only a "process" in the sense that it is a sequence of events which started billions of years ago and has yet to come to an end.

Again: whoever happens to be best equipped for the world as is now gets to cast more genetic dice in the next generation who then need to try and succeed in the world as is then - and good luck to them! You did not bequeath them the tools to survive tomorrow, you've given them what worked for you today - plus a spanner you accidentally bent when you handed it over and which would be of no use to you in your current environment. The fact it was just the tool for your son to make it through his tomorrow was pure luck, as it was pure luck his tomorrow looked, for all intents and purposes, the same as yours today so he came already prepared. You never knew anything about his tomorrow, you just blindly hoped your tools will still work - and you also messed up handing them over here and there, creating new ones in the process, and these may just happen to be useful in a world of tomorrow - the world you knew nothing about when you and your missus were busy crumpling the sheets.

So there you have it. One of the main problems, and major mistakes made when arguing for evolution is turning it on its head and letting the other side reap an easy victory. Yes, it is a bit awkward explaining it the right way around, but we should all try. And if it takes repeating the same argument over and over with minor modifications to make it easier to digest - then so be it. It is also an example of evolution as you amble along casting ever so slightly different explanations and metaphors, not knowing which one will work, and modifying the ones that sounded most promising after the fact.

Finally, does evolution really have a problem of its own? Of course not!