Discovering Religion: Episode 6 – The Theory of Evolution
Now that we have a firm gasp on how science regards facts and theories, lets explore the Theory of Evolution.
You may remember teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron as Mike Seaver on the 80s sitcom “Growing Pains”. However, these days Kirk is a Evangelical Christian that speaks out against evolution with his cohort, Christian author Ray Comfort.
“Behold the atheist’s nightmare. Now if you study a well-made banana, you’ll find on the far side there are three ridges. On the close side two ridges. If you get your hand ready to grip a banana you’ll find on the far side three grooves and on the close side two grooves. The banana and the hand are perfectly made one for the other. You’ll find the maker of the banana, All-mighty God, has made it with a non-slip surface. It has outward indicators of inward content. Green, too early. Yellow, just right. Black, too late.
Now if you go to the top of the banana, you’ll find as with the soda can makers they placed a tab at the top. So God has placed a tab at the top. When you pull the tab, the contents don’t squirt in your face. You’ll find the wrapper, which is biodegradable, has perforations. Notice how gracefully it sits over the human hand. Notice it has a point at the top for ease of entry, just the right shape for the human mouth, chewy, easy to digest, and its even curved toward the face to make the whole process that much easier. Seriously Kirk, the whole of creation testifies to the genius of God’s creative hand. Oh, It definitely does!”
The argument presented by Ray Comfort at best displays a blatant lack of fact checking and at worse is an outright lie. If Kirk and Ray would have taken 2 minutes to type the word banana into Wikipedia and scroll down to the section “Early Cultivation” they would have found the Banana has been cultivated in Papa New Guinea for the past 5,000-8,000 years. Not only that, just below we find an image of a wild banana, pre-cultivation. As you can see, the wild-type Banana bares little resemblance to the cultivated form, it contains relatively little fruit, it is full of large seeds, it does not easily fit in the palm of one’s hand, and I imagine it would be much more difficult to eat than how Ray so graciously demonstrates.
For a Religion that places such emphasis on honesty, creationists seem more than eager to blatantly manipulate facts and spread misinformation, so long as it serves to advance their religiously-biased views. Obviously, the banana as we know it today was not specially designed by God with the ease of human consumption in mind. In fact, quite the contrary. The modern banana is a product of human ingenuity, created though generations of selective breeding.
“He is a big fellow, am I alright? He is quite big, eh? If I saw a man like that. I wouldn’t get this close to him I don’t think. I would think he was on steroids or something. I’d think he was a body builder. No… He is 100% natural. Whereby, lets say, within so many generations our breeders have taken the best of the best. Or the more muscle of the more muscle. We move from a normal, classical type of animal, and then we select that sort of animal based on the ‘double muscle.’ This cow is technically known as a “Belgian Blue”, and it’s the product of selective breeding.”
Essentially, selective breeding is evolution controlled by man. When we find traits in a plant or animal deemed important, we select the specimen for breeding in order propagate said traits within the following generations. Darwin’s mechanism of Natural Selection works exactly the same way. But instead nature, not man, determines which animals will pass on their genetic information based on who is best at finding food and who is most successful in securing a mate.
The animals best adapt at exploiting the resources of their habitat will go on to pass these beneficial attributes to their offspring. With each generation, the population becomes more and more specialized until the very anatomy and physiology of the species is attuned to that specific ecosystem.
Now, what happens when the environment changes or a certain group within the greater population moves away from it’s normal habitat, where they were once specialists, and find themselves in a location where food is not so easily obtained? Well, the process starts itself over again. The members of the population who find themselves struggling to secure resources will die out and the others who can find food and successfully mate will survive, allowing their offspring to gradually become more and more adapted to the new environment.
If two groups in a population remain isolated from one another in comparatively different habitats, eventually they will have accumulated so many adaptations their genetic information will no longer be compatible. This means, if members of each group were to reunite and attempt to mate there will be one of two outcomes. The first would be a failure to produce viable offspring, such as if a chimpanzee were to mate with a baboon.
The second possible outcome would be successful reproduction, but the resultant offspring would be infertile, which can be observed when horses from the Asian continent are bred with zebras from Africa. The inability to produce viable offspring is what defines different species. Darwin was the first to document this phenomenon on November 24, 1859 in his groundbreaking publication “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.”
Darwin’s realizations were truly radical for his time, for not only did it challenge prevailing scientific understanding of Biology, it shook the very foundations of Western culture and religion. In the 1700s biology in Europe and America was dominated by Natural Theology – a philosophy dedicated to discovering the Creator’s plan by studying nature.
Natural theologians saw the adaptations of organisms as evidence that the Creator had designed each and every species for a particular purpose. A major objective of natural theology was to classify species in order to reveal the hierarchy of life that God had created.
Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), a Swedish physician and botanist, sought to discover the order in the diversity of life for the greater glory of God.
Linnaeus was the founder of taxonomy, the branch of biology concerned with naming and classifying the diverse forms of life. He developed the two part classification system of genus and species, still used today. To Linnaeus, clustering similar species together implied kinship, but a century later his taxonomic system would become a focal point in Darwin’s arguments for evolution.
Charles Darwin was fascinated with nature as a child. However, Darwin’s father, an eminent physician, sent Charles to study medicine at the age of sixteen. Charles disliked medicine, and after a few years he enrolled at Christ College at Cambridge University, with the intent of becoming a clergyman. At the age of 22 Darwin finished his degree and he was recommended to Captain Robert FitzRoy, who was preparing a survey ship the HMS Beagle for a voyage around the world.
The primary mission of the voyage was to chart poorly known stretches of South American coastline. While the ship’s crew surveyed the coast, Darwin spent most of his time on shore, observing and collecting hundreds of specimens of the exotic and diverse flora and fauna of South America. He noticed that plants and animals on the continent had definite South American characteristics, very distinct from those of Europe. That in itself may not have been surprising, but Darwin also noted that the plants and animals in temperate regions of South America were more closely related to species living in tropical regions of that continent than to species in temperate regions of Europe.
The geographical distribution of species perplexed Darwin. Especially puzzling was the fauna of the Galapagos, islands of relatively recent volcanic origin. Most of the animal species on the Galapagos live nowhere else in the world, although they resemble species living on the South American mainland. Darwin began to wonder why God had bothered creating so many different but very similar species of animals. It appeared to him as if these varieties of animals came from one another, and were not individually created for a specific purpose.
Among the birds Darwin collected on Galapagos were 13 types of finches that, although quite similar, physically differed from one another, especially in the size of their beaks. Soon after returning to Great Britain in 1836, Darwin started reassessing all that he had observed. He began to perceive the origins of new species and adaptation to the environment as closely related processes.
It occurred to him that a new species could arise from an ancestral form by the gradual accumulation of adaptations to a different environments. This hypothesis for the origin of species predicted that over many generations, two populations could become dissimilar enough to be designated separate species.
Darwin saw a unity in life, with all organisms related through descent from an unknown prototype that lived in the remote past. As descendants of the original organism spilled into various habitats over millions of years, they accumulated diverse modifications, or adaptations, that fit them to specific ways of life. All life, even that of humans, developed from a common ancestor — an evolutionary linage we share with primates.