Monday, October 24, 2005

Timeliness

It took just over three weeks from submission for my last letter to the editor to be printed in the York Daily Record (see previous post). But you know, that hardly matters--because the same questions are raised again and again, and the same refutations can be repeatedly applied. Some people just aren't paying attention.

This point brings to mind a book I happened to return to recently, "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought," by Joseph Le Conte, published in 1888. Le Conte was professor of geology and natural history at the University of California, and had written other works on geology, vision, and the relation of religion and science.
This book contains discussions that are being repeated today, 117 years after it was published. Frequent use of these old, long-refuted arguments is a hallmark of Creationism, including its latest gussied-up version, Intelligent Design. Le Conte writes in his preface:

"...There is a deep and widespread belief in the popular mind, and even to some extent in the scientific mind, that there is something exceptional in the doctrine of evolution as regards its relation to religious thought and moral conduct. Other scientific theories have required only some modifications of religious conceptions, but this utterly destroys the possibility of all religious belief by demonstrating a pure materialism. Now this, I believe, is a misconception. Thinking men are fast coming to see this; some, indeed, have mistaken the change for a reaction against evolution. It is a reaction not against evolution, but only against its materialistic implication. Evolution is more and more firmly established every year..."

In the text, Le Conte provides evidences of evolution and answer objections--the familiar "There are no fossils of transitional forms," "Animals today look pretty much as they do in ancient Egyptian art (no one has observed speciation occurring)." He refers to puctuated equilibria ("But we must remember that such changes are usually more or less paroxysmal; not, indeed, so suddenly as to break the continuity of life, but far more rapid at some times than at others" almost 100 years before publication by Eldredge and Gould (1972). (The apparent long periods of stasis were known in Darwin's day--Gould, in his grand opus "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" notes the observations of Hugh Falconer, a contemporary of Darwin, regarding stability of species and the significance of the sudden appearance of new, evolved forms.) Le Conte even considers Irreducible Complexity ("...the first steps of advance toward usefulness"). However, he cannot offer an explanation for natural selection of "incipient stages" and suggests that future work will shed some light on this mystery ("They only show that we do not yet fully understand this process; that there are still other and perhaps greater factors of evolution than is yet dreamed of in our philosophy").

In the century-plus since "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought" was published, we have come to understand a lot more about the mechanisms of biological variation and evolution, yet it seems that many people remain stuck in that bygone age, raising the same objections that were addressed long ago.


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