Friday, 10 February 2012

'Bad Evolution' - 1

Let me make this clear. Although all Christians believe in a creator God, I am not a 'six-day' creationist. Since the days of Augustine of Hippo (4th/5th century AD), there have been those who read the text of Genesis as indicating something other than a world coming into being over six twenty-four hour periods. So I'm in relatively orthodox company. Nor am I in principle 'anti-evolution'.

BUT, given what a hotbed of debate the subject is, I can't help noticing there's some very bad things being said out there about the evolution -- what I call 'bad evolution' -- and there's a classic on today's BBC News website.

The link from the front page is titled, "Why zebras evolved their stripes". Well, that's wrong for a start. There is no 'why' about evolution, because evolution (at least as currently proposed) does not take place in order to do anything. Rather, changes happen (rather like other stuff) and there are consequences in terms of survival rates, and that's evolution.

It is rather like me discovering a better way the other day to set up my e-mail. It was entirely accidental. I had no idea I was doing anything different, but the outcome was very satisfactory. That is how I have now set up the e-mail on both my computers. I have 'evolved', but there was no 'why' about me making the initial change. It happened accidentally, and I selected it. Understood?

'Bad evolution', however, is shot-through with 'why' and 'in order to' statements. So the actual headline continues in the same vein: "Zebra stripes evolved to keep biting flies at bay".

Oh no they didn't. They may have had the effect of keeping biting flies at bay, but that was entirely fortuitous. The weasel word here is 'to'. It is like saying, "I changed my computer configuration 'to' make my e-mail more efficient." No I didn't. I changed it (accidentally) and it had that it effect. There was no purposeful 'to'.

But the report continues in the same vein (I've left out the paragraph breaks): "Why zebras evolved their characteristic black-and-white stripes has been the subject of decades of debate among scientists. Now researchers from Hungary and Sweden claim to have solved the mystery. The stripes, they say, came about to keep away blood-sucking flies."

Once again, no. Evolutionary theory dictates that the stripes just came about, but were perpetuated because the stripier a zebra, the more its chances of breeding, compared with less-stripy zebras.

Why do I make this point? Because loose talk like the above gives completely the wrong impression about evolution -- that somehow it is a 'force' driving change towards goals. It is NOT. There is no 'in order to', and giving the general public the opposite impression is bad science -- and 'bad evolution'.

(The reason for the '1' in the headline above is that I've noticed this happening so often, I intend to make this a series!)

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  1. Stephen Bazlinton10 February 2012 at 15:38

    Yes John, the whole of macro-evolution is riddled with 'just-so stories'. The debate is whether or not natural selection evolved microbes into man. The 'Creationist' interpretation of the evidence is that natural selection acted upon the created 'kinds' of Genesis. Within each 'kind' was sufficient genetic diversity to be acted upon (mutated) in changing environments and populations to produce a horse kind variety, which had stripes. And if the deduction is right, this gave the zebra survival advantage in a fallen world. Going back to the computer similie, you could only have done what was done if the computer had sufficient information within it to take advantage of the modified circumstances. Natural selection which occurs often is the result of mutation in the genome and this in nearly all cases is not the result of increasing information in the genome but in decreasing it. Thus the available information in the genome for modification gets reduced.

    When we consider the creation and God's purposes in it, the words of Paul in Romans are so true; 'Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and his ways past finding out! "for who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his counsellor?" "Or who has first given to him and it shall be repaid to him?"
    For ihn him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory for ever. Amen

  2. I agree entirely with your view of 'good' evolution which could easily be accepted by an atheist. The question 'why' is an entirely human construct.

  3. Thanks for your piece, John, which may inspire me to think more about this. As I understand it, Neo-Darwinism has two components: random mutation in the genome producing slight variations in offspring + environmental factors (food, climate, predators etc) that influence survivability of a particular mutation. Is this correct?
    If so, my problem is with the metaphor of "selection". This word denotes a mind, person or agent, CHOOSING A instead of B. But since 'nature' has no mind but is simply the amalgam of living things subject to biological laws, then there is no "selection" by nature but simply the chance survival and persistence of a particular mutated organism in a particular environment - which has *by chance* acquired a characteristic that enables it to survive and propagate. This is entirely random, mindless and unplanned, isn't it? So why is it called "selection"?

    Mark B., W. Kent