Answering "Wonderings about Evolution"
"At various times, [during history] similar calculations have been applied to living creatures, with bizarre results. It has been 'proved' that kangaroos can't jump, [and] bees can't fly. . The main message that biologists have derived from these exercises has been a deep scepticism about the relevance of physics to biology, and a comfortable feeling of superiority, because life is clearly more interesting than physics."
- Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, & Jack Cohen in The Science of Discworld1, page 33.
It has always annoyed me the way in which people attempt to justify their ideas or theology by misquoting or twisting scientific principles. A case in point is the "wonderings about evolution" page (link opens new window) on the "Creation Science" web site. The page aims to provide a set of questions to which it claims there are no answers to that will prove that evolution is a credible and possible theory of life appearing on earth.
This article was written when I was an A-Level student towards the end of my course, (GCE A-Levels are the qualifications taken in the British schooling system before beginning university), and set out to answer these questions with scientific fact. All of it can easily be verified in normal, current text books, and references to these are provided. Given it's now just under a decade later, I don't think it's a bad attempt! Hence, I've left it "as is", without any update to the content. Better arguments and references could be made/given, but my views haven't really changed: as a practising Christian I believe God created the Universe, but that that tells us the "why", whilst science tells us the "how".
The questions from the "Creation Science" page appear in bold, quotations from other sources appear in italics, and my answers appear in the normal body text font.
1. Something from nothing?
As a starting point, the word "evolution" is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary2 as:
1 gradual development, esp. from a simple to a more complex form.
2 a process by which species develop from earlier forms, as an explanation of their origins.
[Latin evolutio 'unrolling' (as evolve)]"
The definition of evolution which will be used from here onwards is the generally accepted no. 2, which is simply the evolution of species (speciation), as opposed to the somewhat wild association of evolution with theories of cosmology and the origin of the universe, "The Big Bang".
The Big Bang theory is simply a theory on how the universe might have been formed, given a few simple starting materials. Simply put, an enormous explosion takes place, releasing enormous amounts of energy and spraying material at high speed in all directions. Nuclear fusion produces heavy elements from lighter ones, and matter gradually clumps together due to gravitational attraction. With stars, matter becomes so compressed that enough heat is generated to begin nuclear fusion. That is all that the theory states: nothing about the evolution of life on earth, or elsewhere for that matter!
An explosion is simply a large release of energy, in the form of heat, light, sound, and kinetic ("movement") energy. In our every day lives, explosions do lead to destruction. Why? Because they destroy the order we have produced. However, when one looks at the Big Bang, it wasn't just any old explosion, it was the beginning of the universe!
"What exploded was - nothing. Space, time, and matter are the products of that explosion; they played no part in its cause. Indeed, in a very real sense, it had no cause".
- Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, & Jack Cohen in The Science of Discworld1, page 50.
The Big Bang produced what was essentially a sea of extremely hot fundamental particles. These particles cooled, and were attracted together by electrostatic forces. The only element arising in this manner is Hydrogen (one proton and one electron). It's the most abundant element in the universe, and most of it came from the Big Bang.
Enough of what it actually was, the point is, where did it all come from? Well, I can think of no better way to put it than yet another quote:
"All right, lets got the whole hog: something - perhaps the universe itself, perhaps some precursor - was around forever. It didn't have a beginning, it just was, always".
- Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, & Jack Cohen in The Science of Discworld1, page 48.
There is no feasible scientific explanation for how the Big Bang came into being. Scientists don't say that there is! A plausible explanation is the existence of God, who used the Big Bang as a springboard for creation.
There are very plausible theories as to the formation of stars and planets, which are widely accepted in the scientific community. I do not intend to attempt to explain, them as they are beyond the concerns of this paper. Suffice to say that the reader has an ample range of sources from which he or she can obtain detailed information on these theories (see the Bibliography below). The statement "How reasonable is it to assume that a "big bang" explosion produced the opposite effect - increasing 'information', order and the formation of useful structures, such as stars and planets, and eventually people?" has a simple reply: it is completely reasonable, although the terms "increasing information" and "order" are not, in a scientific context, what actually happened.
2. Physical laws an accident?
The laws of physics are indeed essential to our understanding of the way things in our universe work. However, it is widely known that certain laws do not apply to certain situations. A prominent example is the way in which Newtonian mechanics do not apply to the quantum world: for this a whole new branch of physics and maths has been developed: Quantum mechanics. Also, if we assume that before the Big Bang there was "nothing", then physical laws must have come into being when matter, space, and time did so. Therefore the Big Bang also caused our universe's laws to come into being. During the formation of the universe, the laws by which it was governed changed. Physical laws arise out of there being something to be governed, not the other way round.
Physical laws did not develop by accident: they are a natural consequence of the formation of matter.
3. Order from disorder?
The laws of thermodynamics are some of the most misquoted when it comes to "theological" science. According to my Physics textbooks, they are as follows:
"The zeroth law of thermodynamics states that if two bodies A and B are separately in thermal equilibrium with a third body C, then A and B are in thermal equilibrium with each other".
- P.M. Whelan & M.J. Hodgson, Essential Principles of Physics3, page 180.
"The first law of thermodynamics expresses the principle of conservation of energy . by
- P.M. Whelan & M.J. Hodgson, Essential Principles of Physics3, pages 206-207.
"No heat engine, reversible or irreversible, operating in a cycle, can take in heat from its surroundings and totally convert it into work"
-Lord Kelvin, in 1851. Quoted by P.M. Whelan & M.J. Hodgson, Essential Principles of Physics3, page 210.
The second law can be stated as "the entropy of a system increases over time, rather than decreasing". What it means is that disorder increases in a system as a whole. The universe is a complete system. Therefore, according to the second law, its entropy must be increasing. However, entropy can increase in one part of the system, just as long as a compensating decrease in entropy occurs in another part of the system. Hence it is perfectly reasonable and in no way a violation of the second law, to say that organisms could have evolved on earth, while the stars provoke massive increases in entropy by nuclear fusion. The mistake that is often made is that the earth is considered to be a closed system, which it obviously is not.
The formation of oil could be said to be a contradiction of the second law if it is applied in the same way as it has been to the above problem: if there is no energy input, how come we get a high energy fuel out a lot of rotting organic waste? The answer is that high pressures and temperatures below the earth's crust cause oil formation. Obviously there is no violation of the second law of thermodynamics, as we get oil!
4. Information from Randomness?
Evolutionary theory is the concept that organisms evolved from primitive forms to those present today. This can be extended to saying that life started from a mixture of chemicals which randomly produced the building blocks of life. It is interesting to note that although the formation, of say, an amoeba, is in fact extremely complex, even though it is unicellular, the formation of, for example a virus is less of a daunting prospect (although still complex). Evolution does not try to explain how life first came into being: it may be that over a long period of time thousands of collisions between molecules produced the first simple amino acid (which, after all, simply requires ammonia and an hydroxy-acyl chloride for its formation). As a Christian, I believe that God created the universe and all life in it. This doesn't mean that I have to believe that God went "zap" and there was a ready-made amoeba! I have no problem with believing that God directed the whole process, which might have taken place by collisions of molecules in a "soup" of chemicals. The argument of information from randomness is however somewhat meaningless, as evolution is all about trial and error: a characteristic enters a population by chance (say a gene mutation). If this is advantageous the organism is more likely to survive (natural selection), and hence reproduce a greater number of times. By the laws of genetics, (c.f. Mendel's Law of Independent Assortment), the allele coding for this phenotype (characteristic), can easily be passed on to the individual's offspring. These will also be selected for , and eventually the entire population has the advantageous characteristic. This process means that only those new characteristics that are advantageous survive in a population. Therefore, random genetic mutations (be they point mutations, gene mutations, or other processes such as non-disjunction of chromosomes), can easily result in a population having new characteristics. The argument that information cannot result from randomness is incorrect: it can. Random typing may produce the string "dog". This is information. Whether there is someone to interpret it is another matter. Evolution produces new phenotypes of organism. This is obvious: therefore, it doesn't matter whether you define it as being information from randomness or not. The point is that it happens!
5. Life from Dead chemicals?
There is a very big problem with the argument that life cannot come from "dead" chemicals. All of life is composed of chemicals! Take proteins as an example: they are long chains of amino acids. Aren't these chemicals? It depends on what you call "life". Biologists disagree on whether viruses can be classified as "living" or not: they do not have some of the characteristics of living organisms, but they do reproduce... Viruses are simply a protein capsid enclosing strands of DNA and/or RNA, which are admittedly reasonably complex, but can easily be seen to be chemicals (proteins made up of amino acids, DNA and RNA made of pentose sugars with organic bases and phosphate groups). In other words, life is made up of chemicals!
6. Complex DNA and RNA by chance?
For one thing DNA and RNA are very similar. One incorporates a deoxy-ribose sugar, and the other a ribose sugar. If one came into being, it is not unreasonable to expect that the other would also do so. Also, DNA replication in no way requires RNA. I see no reason why protein synthesis could not be carried out using DNA and a simpler mechanism than that used at present! Also, it has to be remembered that DNA and RNA are a result of random combinations producing the most effective information storage medium. Compare this to the idea of hexagonal close packing in lattices of atoms: the reason this takes place is because it is the most effective configuration (as it increases the entropy of the system).
7. Life is complex.
Yes. But no one said it started off that way... evolution is the whole theory of how it became complex.
8. Where are the transitional fossils?
The picture presented by the text being referred to here is very misleading. In actual fact, many fossils have been found which show clear progression of characteristics. There are various web sites available showing photos of fossils.
The worrying thing about those who write statements such as:
"Most of the examples touted by evolutionists concentrate on just one feature of the anatomy, like a particular bone or the skull. A true transitional fossil should be intermediate in many if not all aspects. The next time someone shows you how this bone changed over time, ask them about the rest of the creature too!"
is that they have clearly not understood or bothered to read on what evolutionary theory actually states. The point is that only one characteristic might evolve over time. True, several might, but it is far more likely that a chance mutation produces one advantageous characteristic, which is passed on. Evolution does not require organisms to change completely in one generation! It would be very surprising to find a transitional fossil which showed intermediate steps in, for example, the development of the jaw bone and also a radical change in foot structure. The rest of an organism apart from that one feature (e.g. the jaw), has stayed the same. Eventually a mutation may then cause that to change, but there is no reason for it to happen at the same time!
9. Could an intermediate even survive?
Here we go again... intermediates are simply those organisms that have inherited an advantageous characteristic. They shouldn't really be called intermediates at all. To take an example, in Chemistry most reactions involve the formation of unstable intermediate complexes between the reactant molecules, which then quickly break down to give the products. In evolution, this is not the case! The "intermediates" are organisms which have gained a characteristic that makes them better suited to their environment (otherwise they would be selected against [die out], and the characteristic would not be maintained). Therefore they are more likely to survive than those without the characteristic, and hence the characteristic is passed on. The point that has been completely missed is that no organism is perfect, but through the process of evolution it becomes better and better adapted to its environment (i.e. gets closer to perfection). It is therefore perfectly reasonable to say that organisms with a new characteristic will survive, (if they are the "intermediates", and not an organism that has a disadvantageous characteristic due to a mutation).
An advantageous characteristic can develop by chance: this is one of the basic ideas of evolution. Take the case of a marsh grass in England. Originally in the 19th Century, the dominant species was Spartina Stricta, having a diploid number of 56 (the number of chromosomes in a normal cell). In 1870 a new species appeared in the area, Spartina Alterniflora, originally from North America, with a diploid number of 70. The current dominant species, Spartina Townsendii, is a product of the two. A hybrid zygote produced by cross-pollination has a diploid number of 63. If non-disjunction of chromosomes at mitosis occurs, then a viable hybrid (which can reproduce) results. The species produced is a halophyte (i.e. it can survive high salt concentrations in the marshes). Therefore it can be seen that there is a mechanism for evolution. (see "Cell Biology and Genetics"4).
10. Reproduction without reproduction?
Reproduction in one of its most basic forms can be seen in bacteria, where binary fission occurs (asexual reproduction). However, it can also be seen that conjugation occurs, where genetic material is exchanged between bacteria. This is a form of evolution: the transfer and exchange of genetic material between organisms results in a much greater gene pool, which can then result in new characteristics. This is the way bacteria develop a resistance to antibiotics so fast: one individual which has undergone a mutation which renders it resistant to a certain chemical is the only one not killed when the antibiotic is applied (i.e. it is selected for). It then reproduces, as it has no competition. All it's offspring will have the same resistance to the antibiotic. If they conjugate with other bacteria, then these will also obtain the resistance. Therefore it is obvious the sexual reproduction provides another source of variation, which is therefore more advantageous, as new characteristics can be conferred on an organism.
For a perfect illustration, look at the way in which jellyfish develop. Some have a predominant medusoid stage, but others have a predominant polyp stage. The polyp stage exists when conditions are stable and reasonably near optimum. However, when conditions become hard (for example, the place where the polyps are is beginning to dry up), budding occurs and medusas develop. These are motile and can reproduce sexually, hence they make sure the genetic variation occurs and therefore that there is as great a chance as possible of advantageous characteristics evolving that would, as a hypothetical example, enable the polyps to survive temporary dry periods.
For a reproduction mechanism to develop is not as daunting as that for the organism to develop. Given that we have decided that this is possible, it does not seem unlikely that one individual would gain the ability for binary fission, the simplest form of asexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction evolves from this as it produces more variation.
11. Plants without photosynthesis?
Photosynthesis is a highly complex process. However, like all processes, there is no reason to suppose that it ever began in such a complicated manner! It may well be that the first photosynthetic organisms were highly inefficient. Also, many primitive bacteria that are capable of photosynthesis also have other food sources. Therefore, photosynthesis could have evolved through bacteria, and eventually plants would have developed. Plants as we know them would not have existed without the photosynthesis reaction! (a ludicrous idea).
12. How do you explain symbiotic relationships?
Symbiotic relationships are again a result of evolution, as opposed to a precursor. It is very evident that, for example, root nodule bacteria such as Rhizobium, originally did not start off by living in the roots of bean plants. Dependency of Rhizobium on the Pappilonaccea family of plants developed. Therefore it is meaningless to say that either organism could not have existed without the other: the point is that they evolved into having the relationship because it was more advantageous to both of them (in this case Rhizobium obtains amino acids from the plant, while the plant obtains nitrates fixed from the air by the bacterium).
13. It's no good unless it's complete.
The point about evolution is that only those characteristics which are advantageous survive. Therefore any that were "incomplete" would not. Mutations may produce certain growths which previously no organisms of one species had. Say something like a flipper on a turtle type of organism. If this "flipper" enables it to be just a little bit better at swimming, then it is selected for. There are no "unfinished" devices in natural selection (see section 9 above), simply ones which are not as good as they could be (think about F1 cars: they are always evolving to become better!).
14. Explain metamorphosis!
Another misconception. Evolution produces the mechanism of metamorphosis. The mechanism would start of very simply, and over generations become more complex. It is a very childish idea to have a caterpillar "getting stuck" because it "doesn't know" how to metamorphose into a butterfly.
15. It should be easy to show evolution.
It is! What has to be remembered is that what many like to term "macro-evolution" and "micro-evolution", are in fact the same thing. Evolution has only one definition. Macro-evolution is an obvious progression from micro-evolution! As to there being no documented evidence to support micro-evolution, it is interesting to note that the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), reported not long ago that an experiment of putting two groups of lizards on islands had in fact conclusively shown that evolution takes place: one island had trees, the other didn't. After several years one group had longer tails (for tree climbing), while the other had the same length, as they had no need for selection on the basis of tails. Unfortunately I don't have any reference for this. If anyone could provide me with one I would be grateful.
Evolution in terms of enormous changes is only possible over very long periods of time. It is therefore ludicrous to say that it should be demonstrable over a period of days! Note that there are many arguments made about how there has not been enough time for evolution to take place. I will not outline them or explain why many are illogical or unscientific here, but suffice to say that in my opinion there has been more than enough time for evolution on a large scale to take place.
A worrying point is made on the page being referred to:
"A higher-order change, where the information content of the organism has been increased should be showable and is not. Developing a new species changes the existing information, but does not add new information, such as would be needed for a new organ, for example."
If one looks at any definition of information, e.g. in an Information Studies text book5, it will be obvious that when the data which constitutes a piece of information is modified, the information is changed. However the changing of data can also produce new information. A very simply example is the word "dog". Change one letter and you get "dig". For most people, the two words mean completely different things, hence radical changes are possible.
Also, genetic mutations allow new DNA to be incorporated into an organism's existing DNA. Without going into detail on the subject, this would allow new tissues to be formed. Think about the way in which potato plants can be made to glow in the dark by genetic engineering: that uses the same principles!
16. Complex things require intelligent design folks!
True. I believe that God must have been in control of the whole process, by whatever mechanism it came about. However, from the points raised above, I would venture to say that there is no reason that this mechanism was not evolution! Please note that evolution does not say that life came from the big bang, probably one of the most common misconceptions that the page being referred to has.
- The Science of Discworld, Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart. & Jack Cohen, Ebury Press 1999.
- The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th edition, edited by R.E. Allen, Oxford University Press 1990.
- Essential Principles of Physics, P.M. Whelan & M.J. Hodgson , 2nd edition, John Murray 1989.
- Cell Biology & Genetics (Advanced Modular Science), Erica Larkcom, Ruth Miller, John Adds, ITP 1998 (?).
- Information Systems for You, Stephen Doyle, Revised Edition, Stanley Thornes 1996