Evolution, ID, Carl Zimmer, monkey-men and suchlike. Again.

I’ve just added The Loom to the linkroll. The Loom is the blog of Carl Zimmer, who wrote the excellent and rivetingly eye-opening Parasite Rex, as well as the excellent but marginally less riveting At the Water’s Edge. They’re both worth reading, but the parasite one would be my recommendation just because the subject matter is that bit more unusual. Anyway, I was reading a long discussion in the comments about how to sell evolution to the public, and it reminded me a of a point I’ve been meaning to make for a while.

The ID movement’s current Big Idea is a rather technical attack on the mechanism of natural selection. It looks good because they appear to be engaging with biologists on their own ground, rather than relying on appeals to scripture. On the other hand, the point which seems to have the most visceral appeal to the public is the question “do you believe that you are descended from an ape?”

But there are two questions here. The idea of ‘evolution’ – that all form of life on earth share common ancestors, that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are similar to Pileated Woodpeckers because they are actually related to each other, and yes, that we are descended from apes – is independent of natural selection. There were evolutionists before Darwin. And the weight of evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

An analogy: Newton said that a dropped apple falls to the ground because all objects are attracted to each other by gravity in proportion to their mass. Whether that’s true or not, the apple still falls. Someone who rejected Newtonian mechanics would not therefore expect apples to float in midair; apples definitely fall, and the only question is why.

Even if IDists have found a fatal flaw in natural selection*, it doesn’t make any of the evidence for evolution disappear. We are definitely descended from apes (and reptiles and fish and little wormy things). Natural selection is by far the best explanation we have for how it happened, but the evidence for evolution is now so strong that if natural selection was disproved, we would need another evolutionary explanation to replace it.

*they haven’t

2 Comments

  1. 27 February 2006 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    The best book I’ve read on this subject to date is – surprisingly – Darwin’s Watch: Science of the Diskworld III – mainly because it gives the story of the development of evolution theory in a wider context of how ideas develop, and uses the “idea” of intelligent design as a counter-example throughout the book.

  2. Harry
    27 February 2006 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    I do think that science is more interesting if you have the historical context. You don’t appreciate how clever an theory is until you know how it was arrived at and understand what the alternative was.

    Like Newton, for example – in some ways the most extraordinary leap he made wasn’t that apples fall because of gravity, or that the earth goes around the sun because of gravity – it was that both processes could be explained by the same thing. And until you know about the mish-mash of theories that existed beforehand, you can’t really appreciate how much difference Newton made.

    In the case of natural selection, the alternative is some kind of ID, just as it was when Darwin was writing – only then it was called ‘natural theology’. I think that the IDist’s call for teachers to ‘teach the controversy’ ought to be an opportunity, because a good teacher ought to be able to use ID as a counterpoint to show how ingenious natural selection is, and why it explains the world around us better than ID does.

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