Pharyngula

Once more into the breach

Hmmm. That creationist who emailed me a question the other day has sent me another. It’s like feeding raccoons—pretty soon they get the idea they should hang out in swarms around your house, they’re digging in the trash, and they’re pooping all over your lawn. Oh, well, one more time:

Here is another question for you kind consideration:

There are a very large number of species on earth; so many that no one has
been able to count them. Many of them are much older than humans, yet none
of them – not even one of them – evolved to a level comparable to that of
humans? What stopped them? Or, should I say, Who stopped them; and why?

First of all, Mr Creationist, both of your questions so far have been very, very poor—everybody has to start somewhere, I know, but they reflect a near total lack of understanding of anything about evolution or biology. Given that you know zip about biology, isn’t it rather arrogant of you to be questioning the fundamentals of the science? Aren’t you presuming a bit much to be pestering a biology professor with these things rather than cracking a book first and catching up on the basics? I have a list of recommended books; you might want to start with some of the kids’ books first. If you’re more ambitious, try Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Zimmer—it’ll give you the overview you need, with more meat that you can dig into.

But to answer your question briefly now…

Your question is an old and tiresome one: it’s a generalized version of the “if we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?” canard. What you are doing is assuming teleology—the idea that there is a direction or progressive pattern to evolution—and further assuming that our particular specializations as humans are the goal towards which all evolution works…and then, as you note, observing that reality doesn’t seem to fit the hypothesis very well. I agree with you that the idea of evolution pushing all species towards a human-like kind of existence is contradicted by all the available evidence.

What you don’t seem to understand, though, and where your question runs off the rails, is that evolution is not teleological or progressive in any specific sense. Evolution accounts for the diversity of life as well as its adaptedness. Squirrels, cockroaches, and pigeons are all following strategies that enable them to prosper without imposing any need to do those human activities of talking and making tools and building imaginative social structures.You have disproven a straw man. Congratulations.

You might actually want to reevaluate your theology, though, since it’s Christianity, creationism, and Intelligent Design that presupposes teleological patterns in our history.

Comments

  1. #1 djlactin
    March 31, 2006

    educate, PZ!… maybe (s)he really wants an answer!

  2. #2 LBBP
    March 31, 2006

    Based on numbers (population), longevity, and adaptability, cockroaches are far more “successful” than humans. The question should be, why haven’t we evolved into roaches?

  3. #3 James
    March 31, 2006

    OK, it was a pretty stupid question, but there was no need to be quite so patronising.

  4. #4 Dan
    March 31, 2006

    You have disproven a straw man. Congratulations.

    This is actually not true. Yes, his question is attacking a straw man, but he hasn’t actually done anything that would disprove it. Questions aren’t arguments, no matter how fast and loose they play with reality.

  5. #5 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    March 31, 2006

    The question should be, why haven’t we evolved into roaches?

    Who says we haven’t? Take a look at most bachelor pads.

  6. #6 Kristine
    March 31, 2006

    What is a “level comparable to humans” anyway? A recent published study suggests that chimpanzees are actually evolving faster than humans, according to the molecular clock. What do we really know about the internal experiences of other highly evolved creatures? Should we just assume because we’re hunting them for trophies and destroying their habitats, that we are superior?

  7. #7 caerbannog
    March 31, 2006

    Be thankful that you aren’t teaching high-school.

    There’s in article in the LA Times today about mouthy, pain-in-the-ass creationist students in high-school biology classes.

    The article is available at: http://tinyurl.com/mq4p7

    Here are some excerpts for the registration-impaired:


    The challenges begin at once.

    “Isn’t it true that mutations only make an animal weaker?” sophomore Chris Willett demands. ” ‘Cause I was watching one time on CNN and they mutated monkeys to see if they could get one to become human and they couldn’t.”

    Frisby tries to explain that evolution takes millions of years, but Willett isn’t listening. “I feel a tail growing!” he calls to his friends, drawing laughter.

    …..

    He’s about to start on the fossil evidence when sophomore Jeff Paul interrupts: “How are you 100% sure that those bones belong to those animals? It could just be some deformed raccoon.”

    From the back of the room, sophomore Melissa Brooks chimes in: “Those are real bones that someone actually found? You’re not just making this up?”

    …..

    As sophomore Daniel Read put it: “I’m going to say as much about God as I can in school, even if the teachers can’t.”

    Such challenges have become so disruptive that some teachers dread the annual unit on evolution — or skip it altogether.

    ……………..

    “We’re not going to roll over and take this,” said Alan I. Leshner, the executive publisher of the journal Science. “These teachers are facing phenomenal pressure. They need help.”

    Now, as for the prospect of having PZ Myers teach these students…. I’d pay money to watch that!

    (excerpts also posted and internet-infidels)

  8. #8 caerbannog
    March 31, 2006

    That should be:

    (excerpts also posted *at* internet-infidels)

  9. #9 Kazim
    March 31, 2006

    PZ, you are a patient man.

  10. #10 Jason Malloy
    March 31, 2006

    What stopped them? Or, should I say, Who stopped them; and why?

    Clearly it was God, who in all his infinite Wisdom and Grace was protecting humanity from hyper-intelligent bears with opposable thumbs. What pic-a-nic basket would be safe?

  11. #11 Brian S.
    March 31, 2006

    The questioner probably hasn’t thought it through clearly, but he or she might mean no other species is comparable intellectually to humans. Couple answers:

    1. Other species have remarkable brains with capabilities far beyond ours (like sonar). Great apes and cetaceans may not be all that far behind us intellectually in geologic time (several million year’s difference between us and chimps versus 3 billion-plus years for life on the planet). Cetaceans were ahead of primates in brain development until the last 10-20 million years.

    2. Species occupy different niches – we can’t match up to other species in other respects. How good is the questioner at catching flying insects with his tongue?

    3. Some species ends up being the first to evolve the capacity to think logically, and then asks why it’s the only one. The answer is it’s not going to be the only one, it just got there first.

    4. Age of an individual species isn’t relevant to his question, which is really about the pace and direction of evolution overall. We’re a somewhat young species because natural selection favored drastic morpohologic changes in us that were disfavored in “living fossil” species.

  12. #12 george cauldron
    March 31, 2006

    The second Mr Creationist asks why we still have apes, I’m outta here.

  13. #13 Kristine
    March 31, 2006

    I’m sure that PZ can handle himself. However, I’d like to mention that creationist minions are also going to museums in gangs of eight or more, surrounding staff and bombarding them with “questions” that are actually attempts to intimidate and solidify group behavior. Evolution has even come up at my workplace (an art museum) on an evaluation form.

    What is first needed are ground rules, in our classrooms and in public museum spaces:

    No interrupting
    No disrespecting
    No jokes, asides, or rude comments
    No groups ganging up on one person
    Questions are asked one at a time
    Questions are allowed to be fully answered before another is asked
    No name-calling
    If you engage in “clever” logical fallacies, you are asking for them to be pointed out

  14. #14 Dianne
    March 31, 2006

    “none of them – not even one of them – evolved to a level comparable to that of humans”

    But that’s not true. Exactly one of them evolved to a “level comparable to humans” (whatever that means): H. sapiens. What stopped the others? Probably just that they were already well adapted to their niches and didn’t need to evolve the particular abilities and limitations that humans have.

  15. #15 BronzeDog
    March 31, 2006

    On the whole “why aren’t they human yet?” thing: I’m reminded of an example of the is-ought fallacy, also known as the naturalistic fallacy:

    A mid-17th century Samurai, Yagyu, decided to challenge Musashi, the famous duelist, because Yagyu was convinced that there is a reason for everything that exists. He thought to himself, since he exists, there must be a reason for his existence. So, he ought to exist as well. He challenged, and lost his life before he could re-examine that principle.

    We weren’t “meant” to be human. We just are. There’s no innate drive for “humanness”. We just had a circumstantial one, and all the other species out there have different circumstances.

  16. #16 Squeaky
    March 31, 2006

    PZ–Is this the actual answer you sent “Mr. Creationist?” Yes, I agree that he is ignorant about science, but perhaps that is the reason he is asking. You yourself said he was at least polite. The tone in your response, especially the first paragraph, was unecessarily defensive. I know if I had been the one that asked the question and received that response, I would not have paid much attention to what you had to say past the first paragraph, where your tone softens considerably. Sadly, you would have already turned me off. Basically, your first paragraph says, “How dare you disturb me with your stupid questions, you uneducated ignoramus!” Bet this person won’t bother to ask you, or any other biologist, the questions that he or she might actually be trying to find an answer to. Maybe it was your intent to just get the kid out of your hair–but, unfortunately, the gap between ignorance and understanding widens. Why couldn’t you have said something like this?

    “Thank you for your questions. I am always happy to answer these questions when they are as polite as yours have been. I have attached a reading list for you to dive into with the hopes you will gain a stronger foundation for the fundamentals of evolutionary theory. I appreciate your curiosity, and would be happy to answer any questions you have from your readings. Please try to keep an open mind. Thank you for your interest.”

  17. #17 PZ Myers
    March 31, 2006

    I get dozens of these things every day. What you call patronizing I call a basic survival strategy. This fellow knows nothing about biology, yet has the unthinking arrogance to repetitively demand answers? I think the first thing to tell him is no, he doesn’t have the right to ask me his simple-minded questions, even if I am nice enough to give him an answer, and that he desperately needs to get some biology basics under his belt. I can’t give him a complete Bio 101 course over email.

  18. #18 David
    March 31, 2006

    The award for the funniest comment to this post goes to…

    Mr. Jason Malloy!

  19. #19 megan
    March 31, 2006

    I’m with Brian S., because I see this question in anthropology classes a lot. One of our species’ evolutionary specializations is intelligence, just as some animals have specialized in flying. Primates as a whole have bigger brains than other comparably sized mammals, and our species has just found intelligence to be evolutionarily successful. There are lots of great articles out there in the journals about why Homo might have evolved to be more intelligent.

    But I’m also for the courtesy comments, a nice attitude can throw an attacker for a loop and then they might actually lower their guard and listen. Harshness just leads them to get more defensive. But then again, I don’t get dozens of these a day, so I’m a little more optimistic about the situation.

  20. #20 todd.
    March 31, 2006

    I think people should be glad that PZ doesn’t have a button in his mail client that sends a standard reply. Something like, “I don’t have enough time to answer all of the introductory-level questions being posed by people paying me to do so, and therefore cannot spend any time doing so for you. Unless, of course, you would like to sign up for a course.”

  21. #21 C.J.Colucci
    March 31, 2006

    When I was young, I used to wonder if, some time in the distant future, some creature would evolve to be the equivalent of a very stupid humanoid — homo erectus, perhaps — while we (the species, not any of us now living)were still around. Pondering the ethical issues of how we would treat them gave me a headache until I realized that we would probably blow ourselves up before the problem could emerge.

  22. #22 thwaite
    March 31, 2006

    In teaching biology, one can’t presume malice before excluding conceptual confusions. Having taught evolution (“The Darwinian Revolution”) to college Humanities students for a few years now, I’m increasingly appreciative of the few researchers studying the confused “folk knowledge” of biology. The folk have odd notions, especially now that most folk grow up in suburbs.

    For example, philosophical “essentialism” is far more Intuitive than population thinking, so, “species” change seems directly caused by environmental change (rather than via population diversities in reproductive success due to heritable traits). Such “species” change is intuited as due to Lamarckian processes – so insects become *more* resistant to insecticides over generations, according to 1st-year medical students in Australia, rather than larger fractions of the population showing such resistance as possible.

    But it’s not just moderns. For example, for knowledge of species identities, tribal peoples in New Guinea intuit their bird and large-animal species consistantly with modern taxonomies as Ernst Mayr showed in the 1930’s. But when entomologist E.O.Wilson went to confirm these results some decades later he also found their knowledge of insect species was essentially whimsical.

    Some pertinent literature:
    “Perspective: Teaching Evolution in Higher Education”
    Brian Alters, Craig Nelson, Evolution, v56n10, Oct 2002, pp. 1891-1901
    “Evolution and Devolution of Knowledge: A Tale of Two Biologies”
    Scott Atran, D. Medin, N. Ross, J. Royal Anthropological Institute, v10, 2004, pp. 395-420.

  23. #23 dAVE
    March 31, 2006

    First off – in case you guys haven’t noticed, this blog provides a place for PZ to vent. So, of course he’s going to be a little abrasive.

    That said, one approach to the questioner would be to go through the history of human evolution, showing all the various hominid species and the times they were extant,. Because we are the only hominid species left, we feel unique, but you don’t have to go back in time very far to come to a time when there were several hominid species existing simultaneously.

    Regarding why there is only one sapient species right now (on land, at least), it may be that once we got smart enough, we simply outcompeted rival species. In a very short time span, humans have spread out across the globe in large numbers and put tremendous pressure on other species. Since we only have a one planet sample, one cannot prove it, but a planet may only have room for one sapient species at a time, because of the competition for resources. Just look at what different populations of humans do to each other, after all.

  24. #24 Nash
    March 31, 2006

    To all those above giving PZ lectures about politeness and the need to assume this “questioner” is acting with the earnest intention of learning, I would like you to revisit:

    “Or, should I say, Who stopped them…”

    And explain to me how that is not a dead giveaway that this “questioner” is not asking a question, but trying to make a point.

    Otherwise, and I say this politely, back off.

  25. #25 craig
    March 31, 2006

    I just realized that the questioner may have been sincere – I think it’s Karl Pilkington!

    For those unfamiliar, Karl is one of the stars of Ricky Gervais’ podcasts, and he asks these exact questions and hilarity ensues as Ricky Gervais futilely tries to educate him. I’m just listening to the 16th episode and Ricky trying to explain that a slug is just as “evolved” as a human… earlier Karl was suggesting that people have long intestinal tracts because “dinosaur was tough to digest” whereas now we have yogurt.

    Hilarious.

    Episodes 1-12 are free and I think available on Ricky Gervais’ website. The second series is on Itunes.

  26. #26 fusilier
    March 31, 2006

    wrt creationist HS students in Los Angeles:

    Are these kids getting parental permission to be disruptive in class? Seriously, the very people who fulminate about politeness, respect for authority, and so forth, are telling their kids to mouth off?

    Glad I went, and Daughters #1 and #2 went, to parochial elementary and high schools. (I could just see “Mr. Paul” or “Miss Brooks” surviving five minutes with Father Deikmann at St. Francis de Sales, in Toledo, OH back in 1967.)

    fusilier
    James 2:24

  27. #27 thwaite
    March 31, 2006

    This questioner’s wording does leave him (her) highly suspect. And I think PZ was impressively generous with his time in this unpaid context – and apt in his focus on the teleological presumptions of the question. This conceptual confusion is popular, as Gould tried to parody with his large collection of cartoons all displaying the invariable progression of crouching pre-humans ‘evolving into’ upright (and whiter!) humans.

    The problems of conceptual biases are many and widespread, even when questions are in good faith. Our cognitive skills evolved mostly to understand medium-sized objects at medium-range distances, and our social skills to deal with love and fear, and leaders and cheaters. (And we tend to project our social skills into the natural world a lot: psychologist Paul Bloom argues this is the evolved basis of belief in gods, as summarized in the Dec ’05 Atlantic Monthly. I have fun with students showing them a short video of simple geometric shapes animated to move about: invariably they can write a story about the shapes’ intentions and actions and far prefer these stories to any physics-based summary.)

    So maybe C.S. Lewis had a point when he argued against trusting human reason to understand the very world in which it evolved? Not.

  28. #28 Grumpy
    March 31, 2006

    Your question is an old and tiresome one: it’s a generalized version of the “if we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?” canard.

    Oh, but it’s more than that. It’s the Fermi Paradox as applied to our own biosphere. Note the reference to the uncounted number of species on Earth, past and present, and the assumption that intelligence is likely to arise more than once given those factors.

    The answer is still the same, of course. But the fact that the question is put this way shows a different understanding than those who can’t get beyond “why are there still monkeys.”

  29. #29 oldhippie
    March 31, 2006

    It might have been worth mentioning that we did exist for a time alongside another equally intelligent species Neanderthal man. No one knows whay they became extinct, but knowing how we behave, chances are we offed them. One of the reasons there may not be another species with our kind of intleligence, is that we have not allowed it. (God may have told us to kill them).

  30. #30 chuko
    March 31, 2006

    I completely sympathize with PZ here.

    I’m having this problem with a Baptist I’ve been spending some time with lately. I’m not militant enough to tell her her religious beliefs are insane without prompting, but I don’t shy away when I’m asked. She asks. I’m getting pretty sick of answering these creationist objections because they’re all negative (what’s wrong with evolution, not why creationism) and they’re all so stupid, plus they’re sometimes obscure enough that I don’t know enough (about biology or creationsim) to answer them right off the bat.

    You know, it’s nice to teach and answer questions, but is always up to us to do their research for them? If they’re going to bombard us with these objections and ask us to answer, shouldn’t we expect them to source them, to think ahead to what our answers might be, and maybe even to do a google search?

  31. #31 Jason Malloy
    March 31, 2006

    The futility of dealing with the vast majority of religious folk and creationists is pretty overbearing. You have to keep in mind these question bombs are actually completely rhetorical. The answers are available to anyone willing to put in the slightest bit of genuine initiative; they aren’t out for a good-faith effort at understanding, they’re just trying to demonstrate how ‘strong’ their faith is by calling out the Secular Devil to his face. They’re not sticking around for the answer, it’s beside the point.

    For example, yesterday some Christian troll asserted to me that atheists can’t have morality, and without God are guaranteed to lie in their own self-interest. In response I detailed, in a ridiculously lengthy reply, why his comment was philosophically debunked over 2000 years ago. This was followed by several other creationists joining in to assert that I hadn’t demonstrated anything and that the first guy was right. The punchline is that they all had the same IP address as the first guy! It’s a good thing Christians have that “god”-belief to prevent them from lying out of self-interest.

    It’s not about understanding or truth with these people, it’s just their version of Internet Jihad. It’s best not to play along, there are far more constructive and/or entertaining ways one could be allocating their time. Like making the same information more easily available for the people who do genuinely want to learn.

  32. #32 Kristine
    March 31, 2006

    “The punchline is that they all had the same IP address as the first guy!” Oh, it just kills me how these Christians act like their God won’t notice their dishonesty! What’s up with God, anyway–can’t He stick up for Himself? (Now, there’s a debate idea…)

  33. #33 Toby
    March 31, 2006

    Probably somebody said this above, but isn’t the simple answer:

    “They haven’t stopped. They’re still evolving.”

    And the way humankind is destroying its capacity to sustain survival, another species will probably come out ahead.

  34. #34 natural cynic
    March 31, 2006

    As a sometime participant on the Evolution/Creationism discussion at Beliefnet (which has far more regular participants backing evolutio, btw), these types of questions about evolution are abundant. I often try to point out sites on the ToE at talkorigins and other resources, but what I find is an almost unvarying unwillingness by creationists to access any website that might disabuse them of their notions.

    If one were to make a general statement comparing those who support the ToE and those who oppose evolution, it would be that creationists don’t do homework (at least outside the narrow confines of creationist sources).

  35. #35 chuko
    March 31, 2006

    The problem with the futility of dealing with the majority of religious folks is that they are the majority.

    That said, I still feel it’s our responsibility to keep plugging away at it, with the understanding that it can’t be turned into a full time job for most of us. Our only advantage is that we’re right – oh, yeah, and that we produce nearly all the scientific advance and most of the new technology that runs the world.

  36. #36 PaulC
    March 31, 2006

    Isn’t the real question why hasn’t everything evolved into a cephalopod by now?

  37. #37 PaulC
    March 31, 2006

    Creationist:

    Many of them are much older than humans, yet none of them – not even one of them – evolved to a level comparable to that of humans?

    In one sense, this is a silly question since it’s unclear what “evolved to a level” is supposed to mean. Our necks aren’t nearly as long as giraffes. We cannot run as fast as cheetahs. We don’t live as long as bristlecone pines. Who says we have anything on these other fine creatures?

    There is the germ of an interesting question here if you make it a little more precise. Namely, why is there only one species on earth capable of altering its environment to the extent possible for humans? I think this has a plausible answer in view of evolution, namely that the presence of one intelligent tool-using species such as humans makes it a lot less likely for another one to evolve.

    I consider it quite plausible that there are other intelligent species in the observable universe (not a complete given, if for instance what we call the universe is part of a much larger unobservable “multiverse”, as in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum events, and if the probability of intelligent life turns out to be much lower than I would guess). Assuming there are other such species, I would imagine that with high probability they might find themselves to be the only species on their planet capable of developing technological culture like humans do. The development of what we think of as human-level intelligence (a certain level of language, tool use, and introspection) is probably an infrequent event. When it happens, that species gets what businesses call “first mover advantage”, completely changing the evolutionary landscape just as a business may change the market landscape. Having two unrelated intelligent species appear at the same time is possible, but should be very rare, and once one does appear, it’s game over for the competitors.

    Actually, it could even be simpler if, say, the probability of evolution of some life over the viable term of a planet is significantly higher than the evolution of intelligent life (assume we have an unambiguous definition that would apply to humans but not to other species living on earth and might apply to similar species elsewhere). In that case, you don’t even need to assume that one intelligent species would change the probability of another developing. If, say, the probability of a planet with some life ever developing an intelligent life was 1 in 30, say, then even with independent probabilities, there would be just a 1 in 900 chance of developing more than one intelligent species. In that case (feel free to correct my math) 29 in 30 intelligent species would find themselves alone while only 1 in 30 would find themselves among other intelligent species.

    I am more inclined to think it is one intelligent species excluding the possibility of another rather than the probability being especially low, but I don’t have an argument. Either model is consistent with what we observe.

  38. #38 ceejayoz
    March 31, 2006

    I don’t know about you lot, but I’d be happy to replace my bum knees and psoriatic skin with nifty bat sonar and wings.

    We’re more evolved? Let’s see a human do the March of the Penguins walk, or survive in a shark’s habitat, or beat up a tiger with their bare hands… then we’ll talk about who’s more evolved.

    Creationists seem to think evolution tends to head towards humanity, which just shows you how massive their misunderstandings about how it works are. Crocodiles, roaches, worms, etc. are all nearly perfectly evolved for their niches.

  39. #39 Dan
    March 31, 2006

    natural cynic:

    As a sometime participant on the Evolution/Creationism discussion at Beliefnet (which has far more regular participants backing evolutio, btw), these types of questions about evolution are abundant. I often try to point out sites on the ToE at talkorigins and other resources, but what I find is an almost unvarying unwillingness by creationists to access any website that might disabuse them of their notions.

    I’ve had similar experiences. I had a guy (on a forum ostensibly dedicated to college football) basically reading to me straight from the creationist’s handbook. Of course, my natural response was to cite the talkorigins pages that specifically debunked each and every one of his claims. His response, in essence, was “I don’t care how hard you try to shove reality down my throat, you’re not going to succeed.”

    What makes it even sadder is that the guy actually admitted, without a shred of either shame or self-awareness, that he didn’t know a damn thing about biology and had exactly zero interest in educating himself. He then ran away from the thread with his tail between his legs, obviously embarassed by his complete inability to say anything even remotely intelligent on the topic. Two months later, had the audacity to lie about the whole thing, as if the thread weren’t preserved in the Dejagoogle USENET archive.

    This is the same guy who habitually told people that they were going to Hell for not believing in the literal truth of the Bible, then gleefully patted himself on the back for being such a non-judgemental guy.

  40. #40 squeaky
    March 31, 2006

    PZ said “I get dozens of these things every day. What you call patronizing I call a basic survival strategy. This fellow knows nothing about biology, yet has the unthinking arrogance to repetitively demand answers? I think the first thing to tell him is no, he doesn’t have the right to ask me his simple-minded questions, even if I am nice enough to give him an answer, and that he desperately needs to get some biology basics under his belt. I can’t give him a complete Bio 101 course over email.”

    Yes, I understand that you get a lot of these sorts of e-mails, and I understand that few of them are nearly this polite. But still, you said the guy actually WAS polite (and I would say so as well, reading his e-mail). So why not return the favor? I’m sure there is a nice way to say “please read these books and get back to me when you have more informed questions. Otherwise, I am afraid time does not allow me to fully explain evolutionary theory to you.” My point is, you can express the truth and still be polite.

    I understand creationists constantly harrass you, but the thing is, you take the bait when you respond in this manner, and you only add fuel to the fire. Their response is then, “see how unreasonable scientists are? I told you so!” It’s the response they expect from you. A gentle answer might take them by surprise, and maybe, just maybe, someone out there will drop their defenses and actually take the time to listen to you. And then, change might occur.

  41. #41 TG
    March 31, 2006

    You should create a template!

    Everytime someone asks you a stupid question you just send off a pre-typed, polite email to Mr/Mrs. X, telling them they lack a basic understanding of biology and then give them a list of books they can read.
    Surely such a template could apply to every one of those emails?

  42. #42 Monty
    March 31, 2006

    Questions aren’t arguments, no matter how fast and loose they play with reality.” –from a previous respondent

    There’s a truly creepy piece over at http://www.commentarymagazine.com (Feb 2006 issue) written by David “Discovery Institute” Berlinski: Origins of Life.

    The content’s bulk is concerned with going over a singular history of molecular biology and chemistry -in terrifyingly mind-numbing detail- as they pertain to Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is a masterpiece of convolution, punctuated by a truly weird sort of logic that uses uncertainty (scientists don’t have all the answers! off with their heads!) to ‘suggest’ that gaps in knowledge indicate flaws endemic to the assumption of evolutionary theory.

    A sample:
    …How could an ancestral form of RNA have acquired the ability to code for various amino acids before coding was useful? But then again, why should “ribozymes in an RNA world,” as the molecular biologist Paul Schimmel and Shana O. Kelley ask, “have expedited their own obsolescence?”

    Could the two steps have taken place simultaneously? If so, there would appear to be very little difference between a Darwinian explanation and the frank admission that a miracle was at work.

    The entirety of Mr Berlinski’s piece is rife with this sort of faux-logic crap. I know nothing about the chemistry of molecular biology, but I know a thing or two about bullshit, and in this case, the eye-watering stink of it is inescapable.

  43. #43 Monty
    March 31, 2006

    Oops…

    Could the two steps have taken place simultaneously? If so, there would appear to be very little difference between a Darwinian explanation and the frank admission that a miracle was at work.

    continues the quote from the aforementioned article, and should have been italicized in my previous post. Apologies.

  44. #44 Daniel Martin
    March 31, 2006

    Note that you could also point them to the biology section of MIT’s OpenCourseware site. The introductory level courses have video lectures (in RealPlayer format).

    As to the original question, I’m almost certain that by “level” the questioner means intelligence. So the question then is: “Why is there such a huge gap between human intelligence and the intelligence of other animals? Why would intelligence be so strongly selected for in only one species? Wouldn’t bears benefit from being smarter?”

    My answer to that is threefold: 1) we (humans) aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are – that is, there really isn’t as much difference as we might think between our brains and, say, a dog’s, 2) we were able to kill off at least one other intelligent species (Neanderthals), and 3) intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  45. #45 dbpitt
    March 31, 2006

    I think misunderstandings of our universe come from the archaic view that it is mechanical. They relate it to what they know best, the things we have created, and assme the universe works the same way. The results may make sense, sometimes even mathmatically, like in the case of Maxwell’s theory of the atmosphere: that it is built up around a network of ether and ballbearings. People are looking at evolution like it is aiming in a certain direction.

  46. #46 the amazing kim
    March 31, 2006

    used to wonder if, some time in the distant future, some creature would evolve to be the equivalent of a very stupid humanoid — homo erectus, perhaps — while we (the species, not any of us now living) were still around

    Like labradors and grey parrots?

  47. #47 Azkyroth
    March 31, 2006

    My answer to that is threefold: 1) we (humans) aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are – that is, there really isn’t as much difference as we might think between our brains and, say, a dog’s, 2) we were able to kill off at least one other intelligent species (Neanderthals), and 3) intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    And 4) from what I’ve read humans’ brains make up about 2% of our body weight but consume as much as 20% of our metabolic energy (I assume this figure is dramatically higher than for any other species). There’s no reason for bears to evolve a costly structure like that (that is to say, there wouldn’t be a strong selective pressure toward it, and likely would be pressure against it), since they’re already very well adapted as tooth-and-claw carnivores, and a good reason for primates with fruit-eating teeth and short, blunt, often painfully fragile fingernails trying to compete with tooth-and-claw carnivores to develop it.

  48. #48 Shyster
    April 1, 2006

    Because we are the only hominid species left, we feel unique, but you don’t have to go back in time very far to come to a time when there were several hominid species existing simultaneously.

    Dave, Go back in time? Hell, obviously you haven’t been to a mall lately. You don’t need to go back in time. Just go a few miles to the nearest Wal-Mart

  49. #49 Keith Douglas
    April 1, 2006

    thwaite: Just FY(and everyone else’s)I, there’s also some work on that in a paper in the volume The Cognitive Basis of Science. (I believe it is called “Classifying Nature Across Cultures”.)

  50. #50 jay denari
    April 1, 2006

    Some species ends up being the first to evolve the capacity to think logically, and then asks why it’s the only one. The answer is it’s not going to be the only one, it just got there first.

    I’m inclined to agree with this point. The only major question is whether the evolution of any subsequent intelligent species will be “natural” or “artificial.” I could see both happening: Some species could evolve sentience and/or tool-use as a result of the dominant species’ impact on their environment, if they have time. Other species could do so sparked by the direct technological intervention of the dominant species (an idea you might be familiar with from David Brin’s Uplift books).

    Unfortunately, the idea that we’re the only one, when coupled with (1) the really arrogant concept that we’re somehow superior to other species and (2) some people’s obsession with either armageddon or profit, especially endangers those species most likely to develop sentience on their own. Since they’re generally high on the food chain, if we eliminate ourselves via nuclear war, massive pollution, etc., we’re likely to eliminate them, too. If we do that, I don’t think we have the capability to eliminate ALL life on Earth, so some future intelligent species might still evolve, provided Earth’s climate remains good long enough.

  51. #51 Dan S.
    April 1, 2006

    thwaite – more references?

    I’ll trade you, in the probably small chance you haven’t seen it:
    Evans, E. M. (2001). Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: Creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 42, 217-266

  52. #52 Mark
    April 1, 2006

    Sorry, but what is the answer to “How are you 100% sure that those bones belong to those animals? It could just be some deformed raccoon.” I can’t find this exact scenario on the Creationist Claims Index — although the words “100% sure” are an instant red flag for me.

  53. #53 thwaite
    April 2, 2006

    Dan S,

    Write me @ sfsu . edu for more refs. I tried posting yesterday but the posts got held for review.

  54. #54 Y. Khan.
    April 3, 2006

    That is right. I know nothing about biology. Science was prohibited in our school. I tried to learn but there were so many branches of it. Biology was not my bag. I went into physics and learned as much as I could of my own in my spare time, and still learning.

    The main objection against creation is that if there is a God, He should have created everything perfect. Religious leaders cannot answer this question. They don’t know a thing about God. They think about Him as an old man with a beard sitting somewhere up there. Their job is to earn money by selling myths, superstitions and lies.

    Those who ask about flaws in nature, do not know the meaning of evolution. If God had created everything perfect, there would be no evolution. If everything was perfect, we had left with nothing to do. We would be sitting some place gazing into void forever.

    It is our job and duty to play god and take it from there where angels (the blind forces of nature) fail.

    Anyway, PZ is not happy with my questions. I’ll, therefore, quit and not bother you again. Thank you all who took time to answer my foolish questions.

    Y. Khan.

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