Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Importance of Evolution

The Phylogenetic Tree of Life

If there's one debate that causes more controversy than anything else in traditional America, it's evolution versus creation. Before Charles Darwin presented his hypothesis of evolution by natural selection when he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the scientific community's view of the world and the origin of all biodiversity was that which has been presented in bible. But discoveries including the fossil record and advances in other scientific disciplines like geology led some skeptics like Darwin to question the simple explanation to the unknown origin of life and earth to some sort of creation. Even today more than 150 years after Darwin's theory was presented and mounds of evidence supporting it have been found, about 46% of the United States still believes that the most likely explanation to our origins is the Genesis story and that evolution is a fallacy. That's a pretty staggering percentage, considering how far scientific knowledge & research has gotten us in terms of technology, medicine, and biology. It also beckons us to question why so many people don't "believe" in Darwinian evolution. I'll get into the term "believe" in terms of evolution a little later and why it false to use that wording a little bit later. But first, let's dig into evolution a little bit.

The complexity and diversity we see in herpetofauna is only a fraction of how biodiverse our world is as a whole. When Darwin first visited the Galapagos islands, he was blown away at the tremendous diversity of species he saw from island to island, and how specialized each species was to its particular ecological niche. A group of finches caught his eye in particular. Noticing a wide variety of beak sizes and shapes, Darwin wondered what the chances were that such this highly adapted group of finch species on a single island came about by a single creation event. By studying the birds Darwin found that each species has exploited a particular ecological niche, it was the only way that such a vast diversity of finches could coexist without driving each other into extinction via competitive exclusion. He postulated that each species had evolved a particular beak morphology to suite a particular diet.

Later studies of the larger beaked species found that the beak size and depth varied throughout years of drought and higher precipitation. In years of severe drought, the beaks of the offspring showed a higher amount of larger beaks to help crack tougher, drier nuts. While in years of appropriate precipitation, offspring showed a higher amount of more moderately sized beaks. This idea and others that Darwin published in his book shook the foundations of scientific community and laid the framework to what we now know about evolution. So what is evolution, how do we define it? It can simply be explained as gradual change of organisms through time or descent with modification through natural selection. A vast amount of ecological pressures require species to adapt, survival of the fittest. Natural selection is the gradual, non-random process by which characteristics become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers This ensures that those individuals with favorable traits are the ones whose genes get passed on to the next generation. Natural selection works at the individual level, but it's consequences affect species at the population level. This has lead to vast changes in species over time. The development of the geologic time scale and the idea of deep time has helped make the process of evolution more clear, it has taken millions of years for the extant species we see today to evolve to where they are now. Other advances, particularly in genetics, have helped scientists gain further insight into how species evolve both genetically and morphologically. Phylogenetic analyses using such concepts have helped reconstruct phylogenies and more accurately classify organisms within families in regards to their evolutionary history. Evolution is the fundamental concept in biology, and it relates to all other disciplines in science.

The best part about the scientific method is that is never seeks to prove a theory, but rather to disprove it. Mounds of evidence in support for evolution have been found in the past few hundred years and the theory has been tested again, and again, and again. It has been widely accepted by the scientific community and is close to a biological fact as we can get. Yet, almost half the population of United States considers it to be hogwash and favors creationism over evolution. How can this be? The problem is where religion interferes with education, particularly in public and private schools. I was raised in a Christian home and attended a private Lutheran school from K-8th grade. Throughout my time time there, I was taught over and over again how evolution wasn't true, that the earth was only a few thousand years old, and the teaching of evolution was an attempt to remove God from the picture. Though I won't bring my own religious beliefs into this, I will say that the things I was taught was a direct attempt to curb my thinking to the way someone else deemed to be correct. It not only curbed my curiosity about the natural world, but also limited my ability to think critically. It wasn't until I reached high school that I was exposed to evolution, and once I gained an understanding of the concept, it vastly increased my ability to understand complex relationships in the natural world and allowed me to think critically probably for the first time in my life. Sadly, many of these schools and some public schools continue to teach children these fallacies in an attempt to spread the idea of creationism. When I ask most people who don't accept the theory of evolution as to why they do so, their answer is usually that the bible says otherwise. When I ask them to explain the way they think evolution works, the answers I receive are usually more than amusing. My favorite reply from someone was that, "if evolution were true, why don't we see dogs turning into cats or vice versa today." This ignorance stems from our country's inability to teach evolution on a wide scale, and the fact that many states; particularly those ones which are conservative, who insist on teaching creationism or intelligent design alongside of evolution in science classes.

This map was published as a part of a study done by the U.S. Census Bureau on high school graduation rates on a county-by-county basis across the country. You'll notice that the deepest red counties; those with the lowest graduation rates, occur in much of the deep south and in states which are considered to be deeply conservative. It is in these states where there is a higher push for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in science classes. It also shows that it is in these parts of the country where the uneducated abound, and it is these people which are trying to influence educational policies regarding evolution. I'm not trying to question people's faith here, I'm simply trying to point out that uneducated people are trying to push an unscientific idea; creationism, to be taught on a wide scale to children. As we continue to deplete the world's resources, cause the extinction of wildlife species, and continue to influence climate change, future generations will need people who are well versed in scientific knowledge to help combat increasing environmental and biological challenges. Teaching creationism inhibits a child's ability to think critically, and can even curb their curiosity of the natural world. If life is static; things do not change over time, as is taught in creation, what is the point of studying the natural world at all?  

This is not a failure to understand; it is a refusal to understand. No matter how much evidence continues to be amassed for evolutionary thought, many continue to dismiss the evidence for transitional species such as Archaeopteryx as hoaxes. People are so wrapped up in their religious beliefs and the literal translation of the bible, that they have become so narrow-minded to the point of retarding the minds of 46% of our country's population. Those words are strong, but it is a failure by parents and school systems to supply children with adequate and true scientific knowledge. Do I have a problem with religion? Absolutely not, as long as it does not harm other people either physically or intellectually. In this case, religious beliefs have been passed off as scientific and have made their way into a place where they don't belong. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "Keep your theology off my biology." I can't think off a phrase that could be any more fitting. We have a magnificent brain, remember to use it.


  1. "Natural selection works at the individual level, but it's consequences affect species at the population level. This has lead to vast changes in species over time."

    Creationists largely accept this premise. This is the trouble that biologists get into when discussing evolution to creationists. Creationists are unfortunately straw-manned by the scientific community in this regard. Natural Selection obviously occurs all the time. Creationists understand this. The thing that biologists need to prove to the creationist is that speciation results from natural selection. It is the unfounded *belief* in speciation that creationists have trouble accepting. It's the epistemological flaw in phylogenetics, parsimony being the differentiating factor between knowledge and belief, that creationists fundamentally reject.

    In summation, it is the responsibility of the biologist to empirically prove speciation as a result of natural selection. The core problem with this, is that biologists have only been able to argue that natural selection and phylogeny trees are the most simple answer. There is ultimately no empiricism at all. You cite Archaeopteryx as your empirical evidence. Sorry, but one shred of evidence to prop up an entire theory is not nearly enough for any rational observer. It's like pointing out a crop circle as evidence for extraterrestrial life... and then complaining about how some crazy religious nut-jobs still don't believe it.

    I also have an issue with the widespread vilification of religion within the academic sphere. Religion is viewed by the scientific community as a barrier to knowledge. What science currently can't explain, religion attempts to give people unfounded and completely contrived answers. I am very sympathetic to this view of religion and education. My only contention is that this applies to many other illegitimate authorities as well. The government is the best example of this. "Public schools" are no less biased than religious private institutions. If your goal is to eliminate bias from academia, then attack it from all sources, not just the ones that offend your particular ideologies.

    "...the things I was taught was a direct attempt to curb my thinking to the way someone else deemed to be correct."

    I want you to really think about what you were taught in public school, primarily in social studies, history, and English classes. You can't just look at the influence of religion in your private school and ignore the influence of government in your public school. I would argue that government has been an aggressor at indoctrinating our youth at a level many times higher than religion, especially in contemporary America.

    The obvious answer to the problem of creationism vs evolution is to allow parents to decide where their children attend school. If you're a creationist, and you want your child learning creationism, then you should be able to send them to that particular school... or vice versa. Imagine the success rate of kids at the creationist school in relation to the success rate of the kids who went to the one that teaches evolution. All I'm saying is, let the chips fall where they may. This doesn't need to be a debate. It's only a problem when the coercive power of the state attempts to solve problems by majority rule and force.

    Saying creationism stifles critical thinking is totally ridiculous. The issue is which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do people who learn creationism stop thinking critically? Or, more likely, do people who inherently fail to think critically happen to be creationists? You're the perfect example. You were taught creationism yet, by some miracle of God, you became a critical thinker. In fact, you were always a critical thinker... and your skepticism for unfounded beliefs merely matured over time and is still maturing to this day.

    1. Brian, thanks for a well written and intelligent response.

      "The thing that biologists need to prove to the creationist is that speciation results from natural selection. It is the unfounded *belief* in speciation that creationists have trouble accepting."

      Speciation by natural selection has been proven by scientists plenty of times in both the fossil record and in present day species. As you know, evolution by natural selection is a gradual process which takes a long time. Observing major speciation events in our lifetime is difficult because of how short our lifespan is in comparison to the evolutionary time scale. How do you define what a species is? If you follow the biological species concept, a species is defined as a group of organisms capable of breeding and producing fertile offspring. Speciation can occur by several different methods, for example allopatric speciation; when a single population splits into two geographically because of a geologic change (mountain range, major body of water, habitat fragmentation,etc) and undergo genotypic and/or phenotypic divergence. This divergence can be due to different ecological pressures or just simple genetic drift. If the two species eventually overlap once again after spreading around the geographic barrier and have drifted enough genetically to the point where they can no longer interbreed and produce viable offspring, then you have two separate species which have diverged. A perfect example of this is with Ensatina eschscholtzii in California. Here's a quick video:

      "Saying creationism stifles critical thinking is totally ridiculous... Do people who learn creationism stop thinking critically?...You were taught creationism yet, by some miracle of God, you became a critical thinker. In fact, you were always a critical thinker... and your skepticism for unfounded beliefs merely matured over time and is still maturing to this day."

      I should have been more specific, I think that creationism stifles one's ability to think critically in terms of scientific thought. The majority of creationists believe that species are static and don't/haven't changed over time. The amount of evidence for evolution, particularly in advances in our understanding of molecular genetics, is astounding. Being able to trace the origins of species and/or populations of organisms at the genetic level which just happen to coincide with refugia during the retreat of the glaciers during the Pleistocene is pretty astounding. The fact that creationists reject this sort of evidence is pretty damn narrow-minded. The majority of creationists also believe that the earth is roughly 6,000 years old and then the great flood described in the story of Noah not only explains their extinction, but also the "rapid" formation of such geologic phenomena as the Grand Canyon. That, in my opinion is a complete failure to think critically. All I'm saying is that, teaching creationism and the other ideas it provides isn't scientifically sound in any way shape or form.

    2. "You cite Archaeopteryx as your empirical evidence. Sorry, but one shred of evidence to prop up an entire theory is not nearly enough for any rational observer. It's like pointing out a crop circle as evidence for extraterrestrial life... and then complaining about how some crazy religious nut-jobs still don't believe it."

      Give me a little slack here, I mentioned Archaeopteryx because it is a well known example of a transitional form and I thought it would be one that many people would recognize. There are plenty of other examples of transitional forms which support the evolution of dinosaurs into modern day birds alone. The Dromaeosaurs; a group of small Therapod dinosaurs including Velociraptor & Deinonychus, share many similarities with modern day birds including pneumatic (hollow) bone structure, brooding of eggs in nests, and more than twenty species are known to have had feathers. Analysis of Dromaeosaur bone tissue discovered that preserved collagen within the bones are much more similar to birds than they are to reptiles. This is just evidence for the evolution of one group of organisms to another. There is a myriad of evidence and transitional forms which helps explain the evolution of modern species, including us. The problem is, particularly with human evolution, that creationists dismiss most transitional forms as hoaxes or species which are just apes and not human enough.

    3. I know this reply is a jumbled mess but please try to bear with me.

      The misunderstanding that we have is not based in the empirical evidence. I understand that natural selection has been observed countless times. This is not a discussion that I'm interested in having because it only serves as a red-herring that distracts us from the fundamental flaw that the combination of science and culture has produced and that philosophy, namely epistemology, has solved.

      You and I both value truth. We also value knowledge. If we didn't value truth and knowledge, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Too often people talk about truth and knowledge without even understanding what these concepts are. Truth is objective. You and I could both agree to believe that the force of gravity (on earth) is 15 x the mass of an object. However, truth doesn't care what we believe. Truth is irrespective of me and you.

      Knowledge is a justified, true, belief. To know the cause of some phenomenon, you must believe it, it must be true, and you must have justification. Now, you may think that your belief in evolution has all of these things - and you'd be right. The real question is, can you say that intelligent design doesn't? A basic google search can show plenty of a priori justifications for intelligent design. Hell, Aristotle would be a great place to start. The point is, when we are confronted with two competing realities, we have to have some basis for choosing. Of course, there is always the idea that one theory has "more" evidence and therefore that theory is the one I should choose. Okay, but because people have found more evidence for one theory, does that make the theory TRUE and the other theory FALSE? Of course not. Maybe people found more evidence for theory A by luck and the evidence for theory B exists but we haven't found it yet. Enter parsimony... the foundation of phylogenetics.

      The basis of knowledge of evolution, when you dig down to the foundation of it, is in parsimony. In physics, we can look at a theory's usefulness. Does it work when we use it to make predictions? Unfortunately, we don't have explicit access to geologic time scales. We can't verify predictions based on the model. So, we ask ourselves, "What's the simplest answer?" From there, we say "EVOLUTION!" and off we go, thumbing our noses at anybody who isn't as enlightened as we are.

      I really don't have a problem with evolution, speciation, natural selection, or any of it. My issue is in the wide-spread belief that intelligent design is dangerous. How can a theory be dangerous? Theories can be used for violent ends, I get that, but explain to me the dangers of intelligent design specifically. When people do this, they fall into the trap of saying something like, "spreading falsehoods is always dangerous." Evolution is a belief. Parsimony can not be used as a basis for knowledge and the subsequent falsehood of another system of beliefs.

      I suggest you read this as it may do a better job explaining the philosophy behind what I'm saying, and then you can apply it to your own ideas of science.

    4. Hey Nick,
      Just thought I would throw my two cents in here coming from a creationist perspective.

      "The majority of creationists believe that species are static and don't/haven't changed over time."

      From my experience (which is very extensive) with creationist this mostly inaccurate. Though I also a predominant scientific view point as well, what you see with creationists is that they do not believe that species stay static at all, what creationists term this as "micro-evolution" or adaptation which has been irrefutably tested. Again what I have seen and experienced is not the overall theory of evolution (what I mean by this is natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, etc) but "macro-evolution" or evolution between species groups. So, I would have to disagree that creationism curbs ones ability to think critically in scientific terms. I understand where you are coming from but saying that creationists are "narrow minded" is narrow minded in and of itself. That is is it not narrow minded to completely reject creationism just because it contradicts evolution?

      I see your lower post referring to your gripe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution. I see your point, but if evolution is to taught alone (which it predominantly is) the school system must do an excellent job doing so, as it is doing a very inadequate job now a days. Sorry to interject my thoughts on the school system. I guess my point is that yes evolution should be taught as it, in my opinion, is a fundamental theory to learn whether or not everyone agrees with it.

    5. Hey Ryan, thanks for stopping by and dropping in an opinion. The original post was never meant to offend, just simply to stimulate discussion on an issue that seems to be becoming more relevant than ever. I also agree that most of our school systems do a sub-par job and teaching evolution rigorously and accurately. Perhaps there needs to be a push for higher standards in the way we teach evolution, as opposed to eliminating one viewpoint over the other. Again, thanks for your input. Hope all is well!

    6. Nick,

      No offense taken, thought your post/article was very well done and made numerous great points. Hope all is well with you as well! We need to get together and herp sometime!


  2. Hi Nick, I love the blog by the way! You had to know you'd be getting some comments on this one :)

    Belief that God created the universe is not incompatible with evolution. None of the major christian(eastern or western) churches would read Gen. 1 literally. That is, that God created the world including living creatures in 7 days. I don't see why at least christian schools can't teach both. For example here is Catholic teaching on the subject taken from

    "The Catholic Position

    What is the Catholic position concerning belief or unbelief in evolution? The question may never be finally settled, but there are definite parameters to what is acceptable Catholic belief.

    Concerning cosmological evolution, the Church has infallibly defined that the universe was specially created out of nothing. Vatican I solemnly defined that everyone must "confess the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing" (Canons on God the Creator of All Things, canon 5).

    The Church does not have an official position on whether the stars, nebulae, and planets we see today were created at that time or whether they developed over time (for example, in the aftermath of the Big Bang that modern cosmologists discuss). However, the Church would maintain that, if the stars and planets did develop over time, this still ultimately must be attributed to God and his plan, for Scripture records: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host [stars, nebulae, planets] by the breath of his mouth" (Ps. 33:6).

    Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him.

    Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. Pope Pius XII declared that "the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God" (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36). So whether the human body was specially created or developed, we are required to hold as a matter of Catholic faith that the human soul is specially created; it did not evolve, and it is not inherited from our parents, as our bodies are.

    While the Church permits belief in either special creation or developmental creation on certain questions, it in no circumstances permits belief in atheistic evolution"

    1. Hey Brendan, thanks for stopping by the blog! Let me know if you ever get back out to Michigan, it would be great to get into the field.

      You mention in your post that the belief that God created the universe is not incompatible with the theory of evolution, I don't think at any point in the post that I said that and also mentioned in my post that I wouldn't bring my own religious beliefs into the discussion. I also don't believe at any point I said that creationism shouldn't be taught in private schools, perhaps I should have been more specific. My biggest gripe is that there's been a major push for it to be taught alongside evolution in public schools. What about the other religious explanations for the origin of life, like those in Islam or Hinduism, should they also be taught alongside evolution? Just because Christianity holds its view of creation to be the one true explanation, doesn't mean it should be represented over the others. That's the biggest problem with the whole idea, bringing religious theology into science, a place where is doesn't belong.

  3. Gotcha. Thanks for the clarification. I'll be in MI for a week sometime in June. I'll hit you up if you're around. Also, if you're ever in Maryland and want to see some of the local pitvipers, feel free to contact me.