Evolution and the Unintelligent Design of Life: Inherited Traits, Genetic Dysfunction and Artificial LifeBelief in the Theory of Evolution Versus Religious FaithThe Evolution of the Human Eye, Complete With Its Inside-Out RetinaCreationism and Intelligent Design: Christian FundamentalismScience and Religion
Evolution is directionless and blind. Features that evolve at one point can become a hindrance later on. Mutations and inefficiencies leads to dysfunctions and disease. This is about unintelligent design and the potential that the Human species has at lending a proper engineering hand to the whole haphazard process of selection.
2500 years ago there arose a society scattered across certain Greek islands that devoted itself to accurate study and produced the great Library of Alexandria. So long ago, they deduced from various observations that animals must have evolved from earlier animals:
“Anaximander of Miletus [was an early scientist from Ionia]. For ages men had used sticks to club and spear one another. Anaximander used one to measure time. He was the first person in Greece to make a sundial, a map of the known world and a celestial globe that showed the patterns of the constellations. [...] He argued that we are so helpless at birth that, if the first human infants had been put into the world on their own, they would immediately have died. From this Anaximander concluded that human beings arose from other animals with more self-reliant newborns: He proposed the spontaneous origin of life in mud, the first animals being fish covered with spines. Some descendents of these fishes eventually abandoned the water and moved to dry land, where they evolved into other animals [...]. He believed in an infinite number of worlds, all inhabited, and all subject to cycles of dissolution and regeneration. 'Nor', as Saint Augustine ruefully complained, 'did he, any more than Thales, attribute the cause of all this ceaseless activity to a divine mind.' [...]
He taught that there was once a much greater variety of living things on the Earth, but that many races of beings 'must have been unable to beget and continue their kind. For in the case of every species that exists, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence protected and preserved it.' In this attempt to explain the lovely adaptation of organisms to their environments, Empedocles, like Anaximander and Democritus, clearly anticipated some aspects of Darwin's great idea of evolution by natural selection.”
I have already written on the demise of the Ionians, so I will leave you with a quotation:
“Such astounding wisdom backed up by studious thinking and experimentation could have launched the world into the modern era. But it didn't.
Rising superstition, the taking of slaves and the growth of monotheistic religion led to the demise of scientific enterprise. The culture changed. The last great scientist of Alexandria, Hypatia, was born in 370CE at a time when the "growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture". Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, considered Hypatia to be a symbol of the learning and science which he considered to be pagan. "In the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint".
The last remains of the Alexandrian Library were destroyed not long after Hypatia's death. Nearly all the books and documents were completely destroyed. The Western Dark Ages had begun, and all knowledge and science was forgotten in the West for over a thousand years.”
Astronomers, mathematicians and chemists had to recover from the dark ages before the theory of evolution was once again worked (in much more detail) out by Darwin and his contemporaries.
Most species of life that have ever lived, are now completely extinct2. Paul Davies in "The Origin of Life" says the figure is as high as 99% of all species - around 4 billion species, gone forever3. That's between ten to a hundred times the number of species that still exist now4. That's not including the present "sixth mass extinction" which is caused by humankind's mass destruction of natural habitats. The vast majority of biologists and zoologists know that life is not 'designed' at all - let alone in an intelligent manner. Victor Stenger in his book documenting the scientific evidence against a designer God, includes this in one of his arguments:
“Estimates of the number of biological species on Earth range as high as one hundred million. Species on the order of ten or a hundred times this number once lived and have become extinct. [...] The large number of species results from the many, largely random attempts that evolution makes to produce a solution to the survival problem; many failures are to be expected as the bulk of these solutions fail. Many successes are marginal, leaving the species open to eventual extinction. [...] Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)4
Our evolution, to our present state, is like that of other animals: a path of many misadventures. What was once useful and an advantage, can at later times become a nuisance. These wrong-turns vary from the interesting to the deadly. For example, professors Bear, Connors and Paradiso in their book "Neuroscience" (1996) explain that the hypothalamus evolved to give us goose pimples when we are cold and call it "a futile attempt to fluff up your nonexistent fur - a reflexive remnant from our hairier ancestors"5. Prof. Richard Dawkins, the foremost evolutionary biologist, supplies a few more serious examples:
“Many of our human ailments, from lower back pain to hernias, prolapsed uteruses and our susceptibility to sinus infections, result directly from the fact that we now walk upright with a body that was shaped over hundreds of millions of years to walk on all fours.”
In the same year, anthropologist Scott Atran makes the case in his essay Unintelligent Design, concluding that no sensible God would have designed our bodies with these features, asking, "why, in making us upright, did he render us so liable to back problems? Why did he give us just one head, heart, and liver, instead of two, like the lungs and kidneys? After all, having two lungs and kidneys is surely better than having one of each: If you have one and it fails, you die; if you have two and one fails, you live.7 It is ironic that we simultaneously have vestigial features in the same bodies that lacks a backup organ for the heart! If our bodies have "a designer" then such a being was certainly not a good engineer (for starters - it took hundreds of millions of years to finally come to modern versions of the eye).
Scientists Olshansky, Carnes and Butler published an article mentioning yet more defects and detailing many improvements that could be made to the Human body in order to prevent many of our physical ailments. Some of these are simple changes that any engineer would clearly have seen to make:
“Our bones lose minerals after age thirty, making them susceptible to fracture and osteoporosis. Our rib cage does not fully enclose and protect most internal organs. Our muscles atrophy. Our leg veins become enlarged and twisted, leading to varicose veins. Our joints wear out as their lubricants thin. Our retinas are prone to detachment. The male prostate enlarges, squeezing and obstructing urine flow. [... Improvements include] bigger ears, rewired eyes, a curved neck, a forward-tilting torso, shorter limbs and stature, extra padding around joints, extra muscles and fat, thicker spinal disks, a reversed knee joint, and more.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)8
Another symptom of the blindfolded nature of evolution is the presence of masses of unused and out-of-use genes; results of mutations and changes that have rendered them useless and ignored by our bodies. Genetic junk. Sometimes, entire organs ('vestigial organs') are no longer required by a species.
“Vestigial characteristics are still another form of morphological evidence, illuminating to contemplate because they show that the living world is full of small, tolerable imperfections. Why do male mammals (including human males) have nipples? Why do some snakes (notably boa constrictors) carry the rudiments of a pelvis and tiny legs buried inside their sleek profiles? Why do certain species of flightless beetle have wings, sealed beneath wing covers that never open? Darwin raised all these questions, and answered them, in The Origin of Species. Vestigial structures stand as remnants of the evolutionary history of a lineage.”
National Geographic (2004)9
Such waste is not only apparent in the complete structure of living animals as a result of evolution's unguided nature, but also for example during development in the womb. This is particularly apparent where evolution selects for something (i.e., larger brains) and that the benefits far outweigh inefficiencies of development. In such cases, evolution will charge forwards accumulating mistakes - as long as the general aim is achieved and successful traits are acquired, the inefficiencies can continue to build up.
“There is a huge proliferation of neurones in early life. [...] One feature of the proliferation is worthy of note: it is very wasteful. Over half of the neuroblasts produced die without achieving any functional capacity. [For example, half of all retinal neurones are never used] Some 25-30% of retinal ganglion cells fail to reach their correct targets in the brain and hence die. This leaves the death of a further 25% of retinal ganglion cells to make up the known loss of 50% of retinal ganglion cells.”
"Exploring the Brain" by Terry Whatson (2004)10
The reason why so many neurones die without being used is that our genes did not know, during the course of evolution, how many neurones are going to be required. So an adequate way to proceed was to produce as many neuroblasts as possible. This comes about because species that can capitalize on genes that lead to greater brain growth outperform those that don't. A surplus of neuroblasts allows future mutations involving brain growth to have a greater chance of being successful. This is all clear evidence that evolution, genetics, and our most prized asset, our neurones and brain, are the result of a process that does not have any lookahead or intelligent aspect to its 'design'. Given that the eye is one of the organs that creationists claim to prove the 'design' is a necessary part of a species' development through history, it appears to be somewhat unintelligently and inefficiently designed.
All animals have biological dysfunctions, genetic junk, signs of evolutionary dead-ends and obscure morphologies (birds that can't fly, male nipples, etc) and countless other little imperfections that belie the any idea that evolution 'knows' what it is doing12. It merely gets by with whatever comes up, and doesn't make future plans. Many features evolve first for one purpose before being modified and finding themselves useful for another. The human eye is a prime example. The history of the eye has been carefully documented by evolutionists; from its basic form in ancient fish, to designs of ever-increasing complexity and functionality. The professor of evolutionary biology Massimo Piugliucci writes that "we now have both a set of computer simulations showing how the complex vertebrate eye can evolve from simple photoreceptors, and a collection of currently living organisms actually displaying many of the predicted forms (all perfectly functional, which answers the classic creationist question of 'what is half an eye good for?')"13
There was no foresight or plan in the development of the human eye, and our vertebrate ancestors evolved an unfortunate feature: an inside-out retina. The nerves that carry signals from the rods and cones in our retina lay on the sensors instead of under them. This is because once something starts evolving, there is no easy way to restart the design. Things move on, and new designs build on old ones.
As the eyes increased in resolution, more and more nerves lay on the inside of the retina; their way to the brain remains a hole in the retina which now features as the blind spot in our vision. A little foresight on the behalf of nature would have led to a much more sensible design! The biologist and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett comments, "no intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process"14. It is one the many daft features of our bodies which made anthropologist Scott Atran come to call the whole spectacle "unintelligent design" and declare that there is no God running the show - "why did he invert the retina and give humans (but not the octopus) a blind spot?" he asks15.
The eye has developed independently in quite a few species in quite a few different ways. This why there is so much difference between the eyes of species. It is possible to take eye-forms and map them; we find that their forms are similar in species that evolved from common ancestors. This is why all vertebrates have the same style inside-out retina.
Compared to other primates and many mammals, why are Human babies so particularly incapable? It is because of competing evolutionary pressures and some engineering solutions that turned out to be inappropriate for Human evolution.
As evolutionary pressure altered Human posture to an upright position, the birthing canal was effectively made narrower16 as the hips became orientated for walking on two legs. Our birthing mechanism works best if our hips were still orientated for all-fours walking. As Humankind has continued to evolve, brain size has got bigger and bigger, meaning that now Human babies have to be born underdeveloped so that their brain can continue to grow and mature outside the womb, after birth at an awkward angle through the too-narrow birth canal. Giving birth through the pelvis has turned out to be severely limiting giving our new posture and increasing skull size; now, agility (defined by narrow hips) and baby brain-size are in direct competition. What a mess! If only evolution operated with some foresight, things would have turned out somewhat more practically.
The anthropologist Prof. John Bock talks about some of these issues in a recent article:
“A horse can walk within an hour after birth. A newborn baboon baby can cling to its mother's hair while she jumps through the trees. Even among our closest evolutionary relatives - chimpanzees and bonobos - babies are far more agile than their human counterparts. That's because humans are born with brains that are largely immature. [...] This uniquely human attribute is the result of a lengthy evolutionary battle between big brains and narrow pelvises. [...]
Over time, natural selection increased brain size in these early humans. But at some point, the selection for bigger and bigger brains collided head on, so to speak, with the narrow pelvis. [...] There is simply not enough room for a big, mature brain to pass through. [...] So in contrast to other mammals, humans have a good bit of development to do after birth. The result is a relatively underdeveloped infant who needs lots of care and can do much less for itself than other newborn primates.”
Prof. John Bock (2009)16
Anthropologist Scott Atran in his essay Unintelligent Design concludes that no sensible God would have designed our bodies with these features:
“[Childbirth is particularly difficult. This results from] evolution's having jammed the outlets of three major expulsive functions into a narrow basin [pelvis]: the expulsion of the large-headed human fetus though a narrow region at childbirth occurs at considerable cost. The 'design flaw' of human childbirth has had cascading effects: Human offspring profit from having big brains, but only at substantial cost-to-fitness of relatively high fatality rates for child and mother, long periods of postnatal care, reduction in fertility rates [...] and so forth.”
Much of the data on what personality traits are inherited comes from the studies of identical twins that were raised from birth in different families. This means that the genetic component of their development can be statistically examined, as their environments are different so similarities in character cannot be attributed to similarities in upbringing. Another method to improve this data is to balance the results according to the socio-economic group of the different parents. Large-scale studies have generally shown that in total, about 50% of the variation in personality is due to heredity18. As part of this general trend, some traits are more inherited than others.
It is not only the standard personality traits that are partially inherited, but, distortions, dysfunctions and abnormal traits can be inherited too. Many are come primarily from shoddy genes. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is 'partially' inherited19, panic disorders and schizophrenia are generally inherited, and bipolar disorder is strongly inherited (see the chart below).
|Trait||Extent Inherited Genetically||Sources|
|Personality in general||50% inherited18.|
|Shyness||Strongly linked to heredity20.|
|Fears and phobias||Primarily inherited20.|
|Panic disorder||Generally inherited21.|
|Bipolar disorder||72% inherited21.|
|Dyslexia||Strongly linked with 3 genes23.|
|Autism Spectrum Disorders||90% inherited24.|
Aggression, neatness, social closeness, and intellectual achievement all depend mostly on upbringing (only 33 to 48 percent is contributed by inheritance)20. After presenting information on the studies of alcoholism and drug abuse, Prof. Dean shows us that responses to alcohol and drugs are partially inherited:
“Physiological and biochemical responses to alcohol and drug use are at least in part inherited. A wide range of evidence, from adoption and twin studies to the identification of biological markers for responses to drug and alcohol use, have supported the findings that certain traits associated with use are inherited.”
Note that responses to the environment can be inherited. So, certain inheritable traits will only show up in certain life circumstances.
Humankind suffers from around 4,000 known genetic diseases, linked with thousands of genes, and which are mostly incurable27. The following are some of the more horrific:
Cystic fibrosis: "A rare disease of the endocrine glands [...] caused by a genetic defect [... That] occurs most frequently in Caucasian Europeans and is the most common fatal genetic disease of Caucasian children. As yet, there is no cure"28.
Down's syndrome "occurs when an individual is born with an extra copy of chromosome number 21 [and] causes mental retardation, distinctive facial features, and abnormalities of some systems of the body. [It] is caused by a defect in the separation of the chromosomes, called nondisjunction. Most scientists do not consider Down's syndrome hereditary"28.
Hemophilia, the blood disease, carried on the X chromosome28.
Huntingdon's disease "is a rare hereditary disease of the nervous system that appears in early adult life or middle age. It is characterized by involuntary muscular twitching. It is a degenerative disease that eventually affects the entire body and causes mental deterioration, and eventual death. No medical treatment exists, though certain sedatives minimize the symptoms"28.
Lissencephaly, untreatable, results from an error in the L1S1 gene during fertilisation. It causes the brain's cortex to develop only into four layers instead of six. "Babies born with lissencephaly have a very poor prognosis; the disease proving lethal before their second birthday. Behaviourally, lissencephaly results in epilepsy, mental retardation, motor impairment and a general lack of development"29.
Muscular dystrophy "is caused by an inherited enzyme deficiency, resulting in a defect in the muscles' ability to use certain amino acids to make proteins"28.
Sickle-cell diseases (anemia) "affects people of African descent and less frequently people of Mediterranean, Greek, Italian, Arabian or Indian decent"28.
"At present, researchers have found more than 1,250 disease-related gene mutations that can be identified and potentially avoided by means of [genetic intervention]"30. If us humble Human Beings are capable of fixing these errors, how could they be part of a 'design' that is maintained by an intelligent supernatural being? Their existence means that evolution is proven to be blind and meandering rather than intentionally directed.
The way genetics works, some genes have terrible effects only when inherited from both parents. This means that the gene can be successful and get passed on from generation to generation, but, it occasionally wrecks havoc on a baby or child. It is very unfortunate that this type of gene exists, but, thankfully the march of evolution means that most dysfunctional genes are eventually removed from the gene pool because they reduce the average viability of offspring. It would be so much better if evolution could see what it was doing, because there is an unfortunate twist. Some of these terrible diseases, which only strike families occasionally, have an advantage when they're not showing their ugly side. This is known as "heterozygote advantage". Examples of this type of disease include sickle-cell anaemia. This disease is spread because in its hidden, harmless form it gives an advantage against malaria. Likewise, cystic fibrosis is believed to give protection against cholera, and the terrible neurodegenerative tay-sachs disease linked with protection against tuberculosis. Due to the advantage of having these genes in their heterozygote form they spread, but, this means that the terrible diseases caused by them occasionally afflict unborn babies and the very young.
“Sickle cell [...] exhibits the phenomenon known as "heterozygote advantage." Heterozygotes have only one copy of a mutant gene. Since sickle cell is a recessive disorder, heterozygous people carry the sickle cell trait but do not usually get sick. It is now known that the mutation that causes sickle cell arose several thousand years ago in parts of Africa where the parasite that causes malaria had recently made its appearance. Over time, the mutation became widely disseminated in those populations, because, even though people who inherited two copies of the gene often died, those with just one copy, the heterozygotes, had significantly improved resistance to malaria.[...] Heterozygote advantage explains why some harmful mutations persist and proliferate.”
“If I was an evil architect who wanted to create a species that would suffer needlessly, then, I would design evolution in such a way that terrible diseases were hidden by genes that conferred an advantage and therefore spread well in the population. If I was a good designer, I wouldn't create genetic diseases at all. Which way does the evidence point? The existence of genetic diseases with heterozygous advantage is evidence that, if there is a creator, or a designer of evolution, such a being is either malevolent or a very poor geneticist.”
The total picture is of a species that copes with multiple inherited dysfunctions. Many of our psychological ills result from the fact that our underlying psychological processes are leftovers from previous eras when life was much more simplistic and Machiavellian. Jonah Lehrer explains that "when evolution was building our brain, it didn't bother to replace all of those emotional processes with new operations under our explicit control. If something isn't broken, then natural selection isn't going to fix it. Our mind is made out of used parts, engineered by a blind watchmaker. The end result is that the uniquely human parts of the mind depend on the primitive mind underneath"31. Prof Dietrich from the Philosophy Department at Binghamton University bemoans this history, stating that "it is a sad fact that much of our basic human psychology is built by evolution. These innate psychological capacities of ours are principally responsible for many of humanity's darkest ills. But in short, we abuse, discriminate, and rape because we are human"32. Likewise, many of our common everyday thinking errors result from cognitive strategies that are not suited to modern information-processing, resulting in many lines of thought that are instinctive but wrong.
Genetic diseases are inherited or are made present from the moment of conception and do not result from any choice of lifestyle. Such random suffering is hardly the hallmark of a well-designed genetic system. Genetic diseases and undesirable personality traits afflict us because evolution is imperfect in its mechanism and blindly progresses down roads that can later turn out to be harmful. When it comes to random genetic mutations during our lives, our cells have had to evolve better and better ways of counteracting biochemical disturbances to DNA. In bacteria, such error-rectification was much less important due to the simplicity of single-cell life, and due to the very rapid lifecycle. Their error rate in their DNA is one in a million. We have developed better specialist enzymes that detect errors and our human rate is cut down to one in a billion33. The only reason that these coping mechanisms are necessary is because the entire way DNA works is not 'well designed', but has merely bumbled along because it happens to work well-enough.
The science of genetic engineering is very young yet we can already permanently remove many horrible inherited diseases from family lines. A success in 2008 with Leber's congenital amaurosis, which is caused by a faulty (inherited) version of gene RPE65, came when scientists used a genetically engineered virus to fix a patient's genes34. There is no reason to think that our competence will not continue to increase. With foresight and intelligence we can rectify more and more of the problems that unmonitored evolution has given us over hundreds of thousands of years: a process which has never before had the oversight of intelligent beings.
“100 000 years ago, cultural evolution became more important than biological.”
E. O. Wilson35
The Human species has reached a unique evolutionary point, where our behaviour is so complex and intelligent that we understand the processes of evolution that resulted in our creation. We are still evolving; and although E. O. Wilson stated that cultural evolution is now more important than biological, sexual selection still has a powerful role in the continued evolution of humanity [Dawkins 1976]. This means that the driving force behind genetic evolution - who we decide to have children with - is still operating. Elements of sexual selection such as breast size, hip width and physical appearance are still providing evolutionary pressure on our genes. But, with increasing levels of cosmetic surgery and other tricks, E. O. Wilson may be right sometime in the future: through the manipulation of our appearance we might begin to overcome the (misguided) natural process of sexual selection. The best hope we have is that we will learn to manipulate our own genes ourselves, and therefore make wiser choices than the haphazard legacy of natural evolution so far.
The rate of DNA change has accelerated over the past 40,000 years, including areas of the genome that influence disease resistance, skin colour and hair follicles (which regulate sweat), "such findings imply that human populations are continuing to adapt to regional differences in sun exposure, foods, and pathogens"36. The National Academy of Sciences published results that indicate that not only is Humanity still evolving, but that in the last 5000 years we have evolved faster than we ever have since we split from chimpanzees 6 million years ago37. "They found that at least 7% of human genes have undergone recent evolution. The changes include lighter skin and blue eyes in northern Europe and partial resistance to diseases such as malaria among some African populations"37, and, a lactose-tolerance gene is now widespread across Europe. In the future, the researchers think that evolutionary pressure will mean the spread of genes that allow mothers to start families later in life.
One of the causes of our accelerated evolution include, they say, is the surge in global population which allows more mutations to occur. The increase in travel and globalisation means that good mutations will move through the world population quicker, a process which the researchers say will also lead to a reduction in genetic differences between races, as African blacks, Chinese, Europeans, etc, have become less isolated populations.
A famous experiment in the late 1960s used a small RNA virus named QB to provide proof-of-principle that artificially created life can evolve and converge with natural life: and both can be created from inorganic chemistry:
A virus is simply a strand of DNA or RNA encased in a protein coat. Although viruses store genetic information, they cannot replicate on their own. To do so they invade cells and hijack their reproductive apparatus, adapting it to make more viruses. [...] The QB virus doesn't need anything as complicated as a cell in order to replicate: a test tube full of suitable chemicals is enough. The experiment, conducted by Sol Spiegelman of the University of Illinois, consisted of introducing the viral RNA into a medium [... to] let it multiply. He then decanted some of that RNA intro yet another solution and so on, in a series of steps.
The effect of allowing unrestricted replication was that the RNA which multiplied fastest won out, and got passed on to the 'next generation' in the series. The decanting operation therefore replaced, in a highly accelerated way, the basic competitive process of Darwinian evolution [...].
Spiegelman's results were spectacular. As anticipated, copying errors occurred during replication. Relieved of the responsibility of working for a living and the need to manufacture protein coats, the spoon-fed RNA strands began to slim down, shedding parts of their genome that were no longer required [...]. Those RNA molecules that could replicate the fastest soon came to predominate for the simple reason that they out-multiplied the competition. After 74 generations, what started out as an RNA strand with 4500 nucleotide bases ended up as a dwarf genome with only 220 bases. This raw replicator with no frills attached could replicate very fast. It was dubbed Spiegelman's monster.”
An even better experiment followed in 1974. Manfred Eigen and colleagues found that massive replication could be had by adding just one virus instead of a whole load of them. They experimented with the initial virus, artificially slimming it down to find out what the bare minimum was that they could insert in order to stimulate mass replication. They slimmed down what they added a great deal, and stumbled upon something absolutely stunning.
“Replicating strands of RNA were still produced when not a single molecule of viral RNA was added! [...] They were witnessing for the first time the spontaneous synthesis of RNA strands from their basic building blocks. Analysis revealed that under some experimental conditions the created RNA resembled Spiegelman's monster.”
Spiegelman experimented on living things and obtained a virus called Spiegelman's monster by accelerating the process of evolution. Further experimenters produced practically the same simple virus from non-living matter.
Living and non-living matter can both create life, spontaneously, given the right ingredients.
Such life is subject to evolution.
Note that this was not obtained from the mix of chemicals that actually produced life as we know it; it is merely a proof-of-principle that evolving life can arise spontaneously from building blocks. In reality, the chemical make-up of life's first environment would have been different and occurred in a massively hotter environment.
“Religious groups have represented the most serious and prolonged opponents of the theory of evolution41 and preach and teach at great length against it, putting off many believers from researching the topic and leaving them only with misinformation41. This is especially damaging in countries with poor public education. Many highly religious countries have banned it (although not always everywhere), such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the United States, Nigeria, and Turkey, "to the point where a significant percentage of their populations are firmly against it without even knowing what it is"42. In the developed world, the USA has the highest percept of creationists43 and is also the most religious highly developed country, whereas Iceland, Denmark and Sweden have the strongest belief in evolution, and are some of the least religious countries in the world43,44,45. Needless to say, education in the Muslim countries of the Middle East are heavily and horribly biased against evolution in their education programmes, with understanding of science even amongst teachers being poor46.”
Creationism is a Christian stance against established sciences such as physics, biology, geology and evolution. Most of them believe that the Earth is only 6 thousand years old, that the Universe was created in 6 days by God. Although not all of them believe in the actual Adam and Eve story, they do believe that all species were designed by God in their present form rather than being a result of the process evolution. What they think the use of genes are, and how they explain why 99.9% of all of God's well-designed species are extinct, I have no idea. These beliefs require the wholesale dismissal of such a huge volume of evidence from a vast array of sciences that ordinary people are astounded by the existence of creationists. It has been pointed out that a sensible approach to evolution requires a good education in biology first47 and that the complexity and imagination required to visualize long-term changes in gene pools and how they facilitate speciation are more difficult to grasp than "god did it" explanation48. Empirical research on the most popular and proclaimed creationists has shown quantitively "that almost without exception the creationist propagandists are incompetent scientists with few if any accomplishments to their credit"49. Unfortunately such people are not content to merely believe strange things. They want others to believe them too. Many consider the success of creationism to be the failure of the education system and of societal controls on extremism.
A more modern face of creationism is intelligent design (ID), which is slicker with its presentation and marketing techniques. ID's front-line battle is with the schooling system and their campaigns make "evolution" out to be contentious or contested and that ID should be taught in schools as a viable alternative. It has made much headway in the USA in particular, and in the UK some faith schools have been found to be teaching that the Universe is less than 10 thousand years old50. But ID fails to find acceptance in most other developed countries although tussles have also been fought in Belgium, Brazil, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and Serbia46. After the USA it is only Muslim countries and Africa that harbour virulent anti-evolutionists. Richard Leakey, who was once the director of Kenya's national museum, had to fight regularly to keep the descriptions of fossils and skeletons accurate. Anti-evolution Christians vandalized, threatened and sometimes won the right to have exhibits removed51.
Fundamentalists tried for a while to pass ID off as a different thing to creationism, but their bluff has been called52,53 and a series of legal defeats has seen the establishment recognize that ID is religious myth, not science. In 2008, the 47 member states of the Council of Europe resolved against the teaching of creationism, and emplored that scientific education is important and should not be mixed with religious beliefs54.
Thankfully, despite occasional small-scale failures, in all modern countries where science and education is driven by evidence, evolution continues to be strongly supported by Governments, and continues to be taught properly as part of public education systems.
For more, see: Creationism and Intelligent Design: Christian Fundamentalism.
Christian doctrine holds that mankind suffers because of sin, which we choose as a result of free will. Without free will there would be no sin, and therefore no suffering. But it is obvious that a great number of the genetic diseases reviewed above on this page are inherited from the moment of conception, and therefore are nothing to do with choice or character. Not only that, but genetic diseases affect all species, although, as a result of mankind's increasing lifespan, many diseases have come to fore in humankind due to senescence. It is possible to construct evolutionary trees tracing the history of a faulty inherited gene through species by looking at which species emerged from what predecessors (phylostratigraphy), and through other genetic techniques. Many faulty genes that afflict mankind originated in previous species that existed before humankind emerged27, therefore, it is a logical impossibility that the existence of mutations and diseases are a result of human sin. In other words, the suffering that results from genetic diseases has affected all species throughout the history of life, and is part of the fundamental process of evolution. It has been noted that this is a hefty piece of evidence that if there is a god, it isn't the good-natured creator that traditional religions believe in.
Many religionists, especially conservative Christians in the USA and fundamentalists around the world, oppose Humankind's intervention in genetics. "Some, like Leon Kass, the former head of President Bush's bioethics council, regard genetic interventions as humankind's contemporary replay of the Tower of Babel episode"56. They say we 'shouldn't play God', that genetic engineering is a Promethean seizure of God's power. A poll in 1997 revealed that 70% of Americans said only God should have the power to interfere with inherited traits, following on from polls in the 1980s that saw two-thirds of Americans declare that the altering of human genes was against God's will56.
I will now offer four arguments that genetic engineering is in accordance with God's will - and also offer one cheeky argument that at the very least, genetic engineering foils the Devil's plans! So for those of us who don't believe in such dualisms, take the following with a philosophical pinch of salt:
“The same Genesis narratives that many read as a source of the prohibition confer on human beings the task of governing and tending to nature. Throughout the Bible, agriculture, animal husbandry, metalworking, and many other technological interventions in nature are permitted and even approved.”
Human achievements with crops and domesticated animals are much more extreme that the simple genetic engineering changes we would implement now, such as removing genes mutations that cause certain diseases, and adding vitamin-producing genes to common crops. This is small fry to what we have already achieved. It's not that the religionists are opposed to the results, it's just that they perceive continued scientific achievements to be a threat to their general religious worldview.
It is not just religionists that hold dangerously strange beliefs about evolution, although some say that the policies which the Nazis developed with regards to race became religious. The biggest failure of this type of ideology is that it depends on the mistaken idea that evolution progresses with purpose, so that everything gets better over time. It takes the facts of the evolutionary struggle for survival (the survival of the fittest), and turns them from description into proscription. This is like a doctor, because he can diagnose a particular disease that occurs naturally, thinking that such a disease is therefore good.
Steve Stewart-Williams, a lecturer at the School of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand, explains that Social Darwinists thought evolution always progressed and improved the species, therefore justifying some economic and political practices (such as the abolition of health care). "It is those conclusions that have unjustly tarnished evolutionary theory by association", he writes and explains that "as the environment changes, the criteria for goodness of design change with it. More important, selection favours any trait that increases the likelihood that the genes contributing to it will be copied, regardless of whether we consider it good or desirable in any sense"58.
If for half a dozen generations, no-one in the world had children with a blond mate, before long there would be no blond human beings. This is how strong the forces of sexual selection can be. If everyone in the world thought cats cute and bred the fluffiest, most child-like and domicile ones, Humans could create a whole new species. In fact, that is exactly how the Egyptians created the domesticated cat from the wild one. Nature did not produce our feline friends; we did. It took them hundreds of years to accomplish what nature does over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. How was it possible for Egyptians to turn wild cats into a new species of domestic cats? Because they commandeered natural selection for their own ends. The result is artificial selection. It is the same process that exists in nature, but with the intelligence and willpower of humankind behind the driving wheel, instead of blind mother nature. Carl Sagan furnishes us with more examples of artificial selection:
“Ten thousand years ago, there were no dairy cows or ferret hounds or large ears of corn. When we domesticated the ancestors of these plants and animals - sometimes creatures who looked quite different - we controlled their breeding. We made sure that certain varieties, having properties we consider desirable, preferentially reproduced. [...] Our corn, or maize, has been bred for ten thousand generations to be more tasty and nutritious than its scrawny ancestors; indeed, it is so changed that it cannot even reproduce without human intervention. [...]
In less than ten thousand years, domestication has increased the weight of wood grown by sheep from less than one kilogram of rough hairs to ten or twenty kilograms of uniform, fine down; or the volume of milk given by cattle during a lactation period from a few hundred to a million cubic centimetres. If artificial selection can make such major changes in so short a period of time, what must natural selection, working over billions of years, be capable of? [...] If humans can make new varieties of plants and animals, must not nature do so also? [...] The answer is all the beauty and diversity of the biological world. Evolution is a fact, not a theory.”
Our growing understanding of genetics results from our understanding of evolution. When we have mapped out genetic trees through history, tracing changes and predicting what fossils we have yet to find, we have frequently found those very intermediary species. Thousands of such missing links have been found60, proving our knowledge of nearly every lineage. But all this knowledge is not just a bed-mate for paleontologists; our understanding of rapidly-evolving bacteria and viruses results in the development of new cures. Take SARS in 2002/3, for example. When several hundred people in China developed severe acute respiratory syndrome, genetic tests based on evolutionary theory led researchers in the right direction:
“The disease soon spread to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Canada and led to hundreds of deaths. In March 2003, a team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, received samples of a virus isolated from the tissues of a SARS patient. Using a new technology known as a DNA microarray, the researchers compared the genetic material of the unknown virus with that of known viruses. Within 24 hours, they assigned the virus to a particular family based on its evolutionary relationship to other viruses -- a result confirmed by other researchers using different techniques. Immediately, work began on a blood test to identify people with the disease (so they could be quarantined), on treatments for the disease, and on vaccines to prevent infection with the virus.”
National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine (2008)60
Fossil-record predictions and genetic kung-fu are two of the most exciting confirmations of evolutionary theory. Another is the record of what we have achieved so far. Our creation of cats, maize, the green carrot, cattle and sheep, and our deepening understanding of genetics is not to be feared. Nature has shown us how to combine genes to produce children; we have shown nature how much better, more nutritious, and safer, the animal and plant kingdom can be if only it is guided intelligently. Between nature and nurture, we have already created a genetically engineered world. We merely done it so slowly that no particular generation of humans was particularly shocked by the process.
Now things have changed.
“From factories and research laboratories to medical clinics, we are entering the era of directed human evolution. [...] For most of our history, we have been the passive subjects of change. In this new era we will take the direction of our evolution into our own hands.”
“Genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life.”
We used our minds to domesticate animals and produce plants with unnatural yields. The method we used was to control the spread of genes in the chosen species, continually improving it. In this millennium, the method is the same but our tools are being updated. Instead of manipulating the spread of genes through sexual selection, we can change them from inception using genetic engineering. We can take genes that produce Vitamin C from one plant and import them into another; we can eliminate hereditary disease through genetic screening. We have made the present, and we will make the future. To say that we shouldn't is to say that we should no longer have cats and dogs, nutritious corn, or wool. None of these things have heralded the end of the world, and neither will the things to come!
Genetic diseases afflict not only mankind, but also all other animal species, and all other forms of life down to the simplest bacteria and harmless single-cell lifeforms floating in the oceans. In all these species and in plants there are seemingly endless cases of genetic flaws and problems. Perhaps the best indicator of how badly life is 'designed' is the stark reality that 99% of all species have gone extinct. The food chain requires that nearly every living being survives by killing other creatures to eat for food, and species naturally expand to use up all local resources, limiting the success of other species. Everywhere in nature, predator-and-prey chains are central to life. This isn't a design for life, but a design of strife and violence. The genetic defects of nature, and the violence and strife of the natural world, indicate that life was not designed by a good-natured creator god but maybe by an evil one. My favourite phrase to describe all of this waste and bad design is one I picked up from Paul Kurtz in the Skeptical Inquirer:
“The existence of vestigial organs in many species, including the human species, is hardly evidence for design; for they have no discernable function. And the extinction of millions of species on the planet is perhaps evidence for unintelligent design.”
Paul Kurtz (2006)63
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
National Geographic. The National Geographic is the official publication of the National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, USA.
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(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
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