Divinity of Doubt: Evolution

Divinity of Doubt: Evolution

Divinity of DoubtAs I stated in the first article on the book Divinity of Doubt:  The God Question, Vincent Buglisoi (also the author of Helter Skelter) recently appeared on the God Discussion talk show.

Having read the book before the show, I'd like to start off by saying that from my perspective this book is a good freshman effort. His critique of religion and the culture war as a whole is good all be it a little naïve in places. I think virtually everything that I have to say below could have been cleared up in the research portion of writing his book had he engaged in some healthy debate on the subjects he covers.

A lawyer and a scientist walk into a bar…

It is a well-worn cliche that a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a lawyer. It's a bad idea to represent oneself for several reasons not the least of which being that the law has a tendency to be complex and unless you're a lawyer yourself, in representing yourself you're probably going to run into a spot in which you are completely ignorant of a subject which will ultimately cause you to loose your case. However, Mr. Bugliosi apparently feels that this maxim does not apply to any other field of study and that being a non-scientist who openly states his ignorance on the subject, none the less feels that he can speak intelligently on the subject of the theory of evolution. Perhaps this is because he feels as though there are no consequences to being wrong or since he claims that no one is able to explain the theory to his level of understanding, that no one understands it enough to counter his case for skepticism of evolution.

Being a biologist myself, shall I play opposing council?

In all seriousness though, I wish Mr Bugliosi's take on the theory of evolution was a joke. The entire chapter dedicated to the subject only serves to highlight the statement that he wrote on the first page of the chapter that he does not understand the theory: For his sake, the chapter should have ended there, yet he attempts to sound well informed in making a case for skepticism about the theory or a case for "Intelligent Design" ”theory”. The questions he asks and objections he makes should have been addressed to someone with an understanding of the theory in the RESEARCH portion of writing his book. They should not have been addressed to his audience who might not understand the theory. Writing as he has only served to increase the confusion on the subject and/or (unfortunately for him if his reader understands the theory) paint him as the fool representing himself in court.

I'll pick three note worthy examples to analyze just to highlight the issue: The chapter is replete with them.

ONE: A fundamental misunderstanding.

One of the most common and fundamental misunderstandings of the theory is demonstrated by Mr. Bugliosi on page 62 where he states,

Darwinian evolution holds that the early organisms were locked in a fierce struggle with other organisms for food, water, safety – that is, for life itself. In the struggle, only the most fit survived and avoided extinction, allowing them to reproduce. Concomitantly, the struggle for life caused the organisms to mutate, to change, to adapt to their demanding environment, the changes making them more complex.

What I can pick out as being wrong with Bugliosi's understanding is threefold:

1) "Safety" is never a major force in evolution. Reproduction is the only struggle evolution is concerned with. If an organism survives to reproduce and dies in the process, that organism's genes are passed on. Male praying mantises and some spiders being killed and eaten in the process of mating is a prime example.

2) The struggle for life did not cause organisms to mutate and the "changes" were not random like mutation. This is "nit picking" and is of fundamental importance in understanding the theory of evolution.

3) The use of the word "extinction" in Bugliosi's quote is misleading. In the theory of evolution "extinction" only applies to a whole population and a whole population does not reproduce; only individuals do.

The actual basic premise would go something like this (Warning: This is probably not a perfect description but it's as close to the actual premise as I can describe at this time.)

Darwinian evolution holds that organisms are locked in a fierce struggle with the environment and other organisms. In the struggle, only the most "fit" avoid starvation before reproducing, becoming food before reproducing and/or are more likely to find a mate. Concomitantly, random mutations which help organisms to survive (i.e. adaptation to their environment) until they can reproduce become more more prevalent in reproducing/interbreeding populations: This is natural selection. These favored (naturally selected) random mutations accumulate over time culminating in the survival or extinction of a population, increased complexity and/or in the diversion of species when populations are kept from interbreeding for long periods of time: This is evolution.

TWO: Questions addressed to…?

My favorite set of questions that would have been good to ask of an evolutionary scientist (which being a fairly famous person writing a book in which he's planing on addressing evolution, he could have accessed) or done at least a quick search on Google comes on page 64 of his book.

What I'm about to say may not be correct, but doesn't the very word "evolution," by definition, mean that the previous life form no longer exists? That is has evolved or mutated into a new and higher form? If so, since monkeys still exist, does that mean, perforce, that we did not evolve from them? If we did, why are they still around, in zoos and climbing trees in the jungle? Is the answer that the statement should be that "man evolved from some monkeys"? But if so, does that not beg the question, why not from others?

I think this is a perfect example of the understandable ignorance Mr. Bugliosi (and many others) possesses on the subject. I don't even think people realize that in asking these questions, especially in a book, they come off sounding exactly like a yokel visiting the Creation Museum in Kentucky who's buying everything in it hook, line and sinker. Not realizing this is made that much more amazing because he even says something about this misunderstanding of the theory and fails completely to get the point when he writes on the previous page,

There has been much angst and resistance in some circles to the notion that one of man's ancestors in the chain of evolution was a monkey; that, as the expression goes, "man evolved from monkeys." (In other words, not just that man and monkeys descended from a common ancestor, but that a monkey was man's immediate ancestor.)

This angst is unfounded and it seems to be something that Mr. Bugliosi himself has contracted from inquiring too little into the theory while hearing/reading too many objections to the theory raised by the ignorant and believing them to be valid. The theory of evolution does indeed state that we evolved from a common ancestor we share with modern monkeys and NOT that we evolved from them. That common ancestor is indeed extinct however that's virtually irrelevant because even if it wasn't and had survived virtually unchanged to the present day, it would not invalidate the theory. It's other descendent's besides Hominids (humans and their ape-like ancestors) who more closely resemble the organism in question have undergone their own evolution and are now represented by modern day primates such as monkeys, great apes, and baboons just to name a few.

Three: My cat is AMAZING! (or is he…)

Bugliosi talks at length about memory being so amazing and unexplainable by evolution, that it more likely was a gift from a creator. In this diatribe he talks about his amazing cat Sherlock that he, would startle from repose by slapping his hands loudly to see his startled response. He goes on to say,

But from the first time I did this,… when I would thereafter, perhaps fifteen to twenty seconds later, slap my hands again, the loud noise drew absolutely no response from him. Just think about it. The loud noise from my second clap reached Sherlock's ears instantly, and equally instantly he processed the noise in what had to be some small part of his tiny little brain, and for his memory of the last clap being a false alarm, he knew from his memory, that the second loud clap was pure bull that he didn't have to deal with, so he ignored it, and along with it, me.

He then goes on to talk about a comparison with inferior computers, ask a series of questions only one of which is relevant and then concludes thusly.

…in the evolution of the cat species, why would such unbelievable refinement and perfection of the faculty I describes ever be necessary to survive? If it would, the example I gave of my egg (literally a pet name for his pet) is meaningless. But if it would not, what the egg had was a gift, a gift, it would seem, that could come only from a creator.

There are two steps to addressing this proposed problem with the theory of evolution and/or the idea that the ability of his cat was a gift from God; (1) describing the reason for the initial reaction of being startled and (2) giving a reason for the phenomena that amazes Mr. Bugliosi: The ability of his cat to ignore a second loud noise.

If we want to understand the evolutionary reasoning behind the "amazing Sherlock" we must start out with the question, why do cats (and many other organisms including humans) react to sudden loud noises? The answer to this is quite simple, it's because sudden loud noises in nature can accompany imminent threats to one's life: Usually in the form of a predator coming to collect you as food. This being the case the reaction itself of being startled (becoming alert, increased heart rate/blood flow, increased excretion of stimulant hormones like epinephrine, increased muscle tension, etc.) is a very good reaction to have as it would prepare you for the famous "fight or flight response." Thus step one of describing the reason for initial reaction is complete.

Now for step two. The phenomena that amazes Mr. Bugliosi was the ability of his cat to ignore a loud noise and not become startled. The proper question that should be asked at this point is, why would this be a useful ability for a cat (or any other organism) to develop? The answer lies in the concept of energy conservation (it's not just about light bulbs). It takes a relatively enormous amount of energy to become alert, tens muscles, increase heart rate/blood flow, excrete stimulants etc. If a noise identified as a non-threat is repeated and can subsequently be ignored, energy will be conserved in not becoming excited. If the repeated non-threatening noise cannot be ignored there will be major the consequences. Just imagine the time and energy wasted by a group of lions (this is an arbitrary example) relaxing in the shade on the savanna and becoming startled and alert every time their young, while playing nearby, rustled the grass or broke a twig.

The bottom line here is that time and energy not spent on something that need not be attended to from a survival standpoint means time and energy that can be spent conserving energy, muscle recovery, healing wounds, gathering food or developing social connections that will aid in an individuals survival etc.: And ultimately acquiring a mate and/or producing offspring. Organisms that developed the ability to ignore a non-threatening repeating noise would conserve more energy, and thus, become more successful in passing on their genes.

As it was with Mr. Bugliosi's take on atheism and the cosmological argument for the existence of God, he seems to be as woefully ill-informed on the subject of the theory of evolution as the average person. He blames this on the writers of books on the theory themselves for being cryptic and attempting to keep their "alleged knowledge to themselves."

Again some healthy debate on the subject or watching a debate on the subject between an evolutionist and a creationist (who raise these kinds of objections all the time) would have done wonders for Mr. Bugliosi's understanding of the subject let alone asking an evolutionary scientist.

About themanofearth

I'm a biologist, philosopher, and an agnostic atheist activist. My other work is viewable on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/themanofearth "Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you." ~ Christopher Hitchens
  • I must say I was disappointed with Vincent Bugliosi. I did not expect him to be so forceful, then he got offended when he figured out what he was saying wasn't really all that shocking, and it seemed to be "all about him." Your article, no doubt, articulates what you would have said to him had he given you a chance! Good article!

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