Friday, November 16, 2007

What Evolution Is

Ernst Mayr was one of the most famous biologists and evolutionists of the last 100 years. He lived to be 100 years old and wrote the book that I'm reviewing in his nineties, his mind still obviously very sharp on the topic that was the passion of his life. I've picked up and put down Mayr's book several times, but ultimately read it to gain perspective on evolution from someone who was at the top of the biological sciences. Mayr helped shaped the Darwinian synthesis in the 1940s that has come to dominate the biological sciences today as the scientific understanding of the development of life. I have struggled with many in my own tribe who dog evolution for two reasons: one, they only ever seem to read people who agree with them on the subject instead of seeing what evolutionary biologist actually write, and two, many who speak against evolution don't spend time studying the science behind the theory. As I have written before on the topic of evolution, the philosophical statements of evolutionary leaders are often easy to defend against and poke holes in. This is because ultimately science is a descriptive field, not a philosophical one. In other words, scientists are best when they are describing what they see at work in the world around them, but move quickly into the field of religion and philosophy when they start speaking about why things in the world work the way they do. All that being said, I thought it was only far to read some of the scientific work done in the area of evolution since I'm always commenting about the philosophical issues. Here's a few of my thoughts on the science from Mayr's book:

1) His book is very well-written and gave me an introduction into many things that I need to think about and wrestle with. It was a good exercise for me to understand the three main parts of Darwinian evolution: one, common descent (all life on earth is descended from common ancestors, ultimately single-cell bacteria), two, random mutation (all populations of species change through hereditary and mutations), and three, natural selection (that those changes that are beneficial to life are passed on because they are beneficial to survival).

2) Mayr is open about the limitations of the fossil record to prove evolutionary theory because he says it is commonly accepted by paleontologists that very few animals are fossilized. While this is refreshing to read, it makes the reader wonder why so much confidence is put into a record with so little evidence. There are some fossils, just not very many - not the overwhelming evidence pool that evolutionists want it to be.

3) Creationists have to deal with the fact in their scientific & theological explanations that the earth appears to be incredibly old, that species have appeared to change over time, and that all living things have a similar genetic code. I'm not saying they have to buy into evolutionary explanations, but just that they need to have other explanations.

4) Mayr has not done a great job convincing me of the following:

  • One, though everyone can understand microevolutionary change (changes within the species), it seems counterintuitive that random small random changes (which most of the time are harmful, not helpful) are powerful enough to give rise the amazing diversity of life that we see around us every day.
  • Two, with so much of evolutionary work being historical work, it seems odd to me that we have not seen natural selection do what scientist say it can do - create macroevolutionary changes over generations.
  • Third, as evolutionary movement in Mayr's timeline seems to accelerate and slow down, the evolutionary explanations for this seems rather weak. Why does the fossil record show periods of rapid special development and then steady-state for long periods of time? It seems like from our observations that species are very stable over time and yet we are supposed to believe that during quick bursts (of creativity) many different species suddenly appeared.
  • Fourth, Mayr's work on altruism is the weakest part of the book in my mind. He openly admits that we need religious leaders to teach us to care for outsiders, but we just don't need the crazy creation myths that religious leaders share. What kind of non-sense is this? Obviously, love and care toward outsiders is the weakest part of evolutionary theory in my mind. The character trait that we would consider the most noble would be the one that would ultimately kill our own kind?
  • Finally, there is still no basis for morality in the evolutionary system. In what has to be the most bizarre part of Mayr's book, he says that we need religious and cultural leaders to teach ethics because evolution has no ethics. Then why does every person have a sense of ethics? This would mean that a system that has no ethical values would create a species of people with a moral compass. This is as ridiculous as saying that a system without purpose created people who are obsessed with purpose. If there truly is not external basis for a moral code because I am ONLY a biological being that is competing for resources with other biological creatures, why should I live a moral life? Yet I know that I should. Why would I even consider being faithful to my spouse and not just follow my biological urges and have sex with as many women as possible in order to continue my line and win in the evolutionary race? Is the greatest goal of a man to make sure that his children carry on his line? Is that what we are?
I'm done ranting, but you get some of the ideas. I was challenged by Mayr's book - his scientific knowledge is obviously superior to mine. I encourage other parents who will have discussions with their kids about evolution to read it. I hope some of these thoughts are helpful. I don't have it all figured out by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm a guy trying to put all the pieces together. God's best to you!


Anonymous said...

You sat: "Finally, there is still no basis for morality in the evolutionary system."

Please visit for the scientific basis for morality.

GLMeece said...

Although they haven't successfully answered all the issues you've raised here, I find the most credible Christian scientific apologetics resource to be Reasons to Believe:

They've even had people like Francis Collins (one of the leads in the Human Genome project, and a theistic evolutionist) on their program, and certainly treated him with more respect than any young-earth creationists would have.