thats_wild (2006-25)

It’s easier when you consider the facts

Be Fruitful and Evolve

by Rikki Hall

I could write a whole column about how irreducible complexity is an intellectual parlor trick and intelligent design a stillborn runt of a theory, but what I really feel for proponents of those ideas is pity.

Evolution is a simple and elegant idea that makes an already beautiful world even more fascinating. Those who refuse to understand evolution live in a dimmer, less colorful world than the one I perceive. Evolution gives structure to the diversity of plants and animals, turning the cataloging of living things into endless, captivating puzzles. It gives a context for comprehending the bewildering array of ecological, anatomical, paleontological and genetic information.

Geologists have long known of a major volcanic eruption 75,000 years ago that deposited ash all over the planet. Toba on the island of Sumatra was the culprit, and it seems to have been the largest eruption in at least two million years. Last year, researchers studying human mitochondrial DNA discovered a genetic bottleneck that, based on observed mutation rates, dates to that same period. It appears our ancient ancestors suffered a population crash when Toba erupted.

Darwin predicted the existence of a hereditary germ plasm, and his theory touched off a search that yielded the discovery of DNA, RNA, their molecular structures, methods of clonal reproduction, sexual reproduction with crossover, translation of nucleic acid sequences into proteins, a huge body of knowledge validating his ideas. The correlation of historical data derived from genes with geological data not only offers an interesting glimpse at our history, it further validates evolutionary theory, which has been expanded and refined since Darwin’s time and continues to yield new insights.

The emotional investment in our own history and origin makes for frequent and bitter controversies, but evolution lets us study the origin of every plant or animal. The origin of wings in insects is especially interesting. It is a hard problem, because flight requires considerable muscle power, and it is hard to imagine a smooth transition from no flight muscles to powerful flight muscles. Entomologists suggested leaping and gliding as an enabling step.

In recent decades, however, those who study aquatic insects have been exploring a more viable hypothesis: wings evolved underwater, first as external gills fluttered to increase oxygen absorption, then as swimming organs, then finally adapting to the higher demands of airborne flight. The oldest insect fossils are mayflies and dragonflies, both aquatic, but traditional entomology is biased toward terrestrial insects, so few entomologists thought much about aquatic varieties, leading them to overlook an aquatic origin for wings.

Bird researchers debate whether avian flight originated from the trees down or from the ground up, but the oldest fossil birds are marine animals that dived for food. Ornithologists would be wise to look to entomology and ponder whether birds swam before flying. An interesting hypothesis on human origins suggests that we differentiated from other great apes when we colonized marine environments, thus explaining our hairlessness, diving reflex, and salt excretion.

Those are some of the more prominent puzzles evolution sets before us, but they are everywhere. Whether it is snakes or orchids or prairie dogs or ferns that capture your fancy, evolution adds layers of fascination. Whenever I hear someone talking about intelligent design or Creationism, I am struck by how little they seem to know about nature, and I feel the same pity and sympathy I feel for a blind person who will never see a spring carpet of wildflowers in an Appalachian cove or for a deaf person who will never hear a wood thrush serenade the setting sun.

In a recent Metro Pulse cover story [“In Scopes’ Shadow,” March 16], Phillip Johnson, a lawyer considered to be one of the founders of the intelligent design philosophy, said that evolution “doesn’t have any creative power.” How can he not see that the ability to create offspring drives evolution? Is he a sexist dismissing a primarily maternal power? Since he has authored numerous books criticizing evolution and participated in many debates on the subject, he cannot honestly plead ignorance.

Evolution is nothing if not a creative force. It works the same way human creativity works, by trial and error, innovation and refinement. Just as architecture advances one building at a time or commerce grows one invention at a time, life evolves with each offspring birthed or hatched, each a novelty not quite the same as its parents.

Men like Johnson make their living selling books and collecting speaker’s fees. When I think about that, my pity reverts to disgust. He is a snake-oil salesman selling intellectual poison. Don’t drink it, for it will blind you to many of nature’s most intriguing mysteries. It won’t get you closer to the God who commanded the earth and waters to bring forth life. “Be fruitful and multiply” is perhaps the simplest description of evolution.

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.