I know a lot of people (some of whom even admit to knowing me). Many of them are of the religious persuasion; others, not so much. In the case of the religious folks, their beliefs range across the spectrum.
Some — like my dear old mother — are happy to accept that scientists know what they are talking about when they say the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, that our solar system is about 4.6 billion years old, that life emerged on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago, and that we all evolved from these original life forms. She also believes that God created the universe and that everything — including evolution — is part of His (or Her) master plan.
I also know people who believe that the Earth and all its lifeforms were created in their present forms by supernatural acts of God approximately 6,000 years ago. These are the folks who don’t believe in evolution and are fond of saying, “Even scientists say it’s only a theory.” Well, yes, that’s true, but so is the general theory of relativity, which is our current best guess as to the way in which gravity works.
Personally, I don’t care to argue with anyone about religion, although I do tend to oppose teaching intelligent design (ID) — a pseudoscientific argument for the existence of God — as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. As part of this, I’m a big fan of Bobby Henderson, the founder of Pastafarianism (a.k.a. Flying Spaghetti Monsterism). As Bobby concluded in 2005 in an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, which was — at that time — proposing to teach only intelligent design in biology classes:
[…] I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; one third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence […]
One reason I mention this here is that I happened to find myself at a pastor’s house last night. He’s a really nice guy and I wouldn’t want to enter into a dispute with him. However, I blundered into a conversation about evolution where he was telling someone that he absolutely refuses to believe that we are descended from monkeys.
On the one hand I have to agree with him because I believe that monkeys and humans are both primates who share a common ape ancestor, but I fear that’s not what he meant. My knee-jerk reaction was to think, “you might change your mind if you met some of my relatives,” but I bit my tongue, smiled vaguely, and meandered on my way.
One of the arguments used by the supporters of intelligent design is that if you were to find a sophisticated artifact like a clockwork pocket watch, you would be forced to conclude that this had not come together via natural processes, but rather that it must have been designed and created. They then use this as a basis for claiming that something as complex as the human eye could not have come about through random evolutionary processes. As is says on the Wikipedia page for intelligent design:
ID presents two main arguments against evolutionary explanations: irreducible complexity and specified complexity. These arguments assert that certain features (biological and informational, respectively) are too complex to be the result of natural processes.
What the members of the ID fraternity fail to mention is that, as wonderful as it is, the human eye actually has numerous design flaws, not the least that light has to pass through a layer of tissue before reaching the photoreceptor cells, which themselves appear to be orientated the wrong way round (their “wiring” faces the light and the photodetectors point away from the light).
In Your Inner Fish, A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, Neil Shubin lays out what I would consider to be undeniable proof that we are evolved beings, not the least that our bodies have so many design flaws. Similarly, in Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, Gary Marcus provides compelling arguments that the human mind is highly flawed, at least from “design” or “engineering” viewpoints.
Of course, the tricky thing is when an ID cheerleader cheerfully asks, “How could life spontaneously arise from inert matter?” The funny thing is that this is pretty much the founding tenant of ID, with God as the motivating force. On this basis, why could God not have provided the initial impetus to create the first instance of primitive life from which we all evolved?
If you are interested in learning more about all this stuff, there are three books that I would heartily recommend. The first is Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray. This takes us from single-cell creatures like the amoeba, through the simplest of multi-cell creatures, all the way up to the pinnacle of evolution, which would be me (and you, I suppose).
But how did life get started in the first place? Well, Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M Hoffmann provides a compelling solution that is hard to refute. Last but not least, The Machinery of Life by David S Goodsell provides the most amazing illustrations depicting the inner workings of our cells.
Although not related to this particular discussion, in a recent email, my chum Charles Pfeil said, “Thinking about life in general, it is so impossible, so incredible, so beautiful, so mysterious. Yet, what is even more astonishing is that we are conscious of it.” I couldn’t have said this better myself.
How about you? What do you think about all of this? Are you a disciple of Intelligent Design, a believer in Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, a devotee of the Invisible Pink Unicorn (a being of great spiritual power as evidenced by the fact that she is capable of being invisible and pink at the same time), or do you opt for “logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence,” a.k.a. Evolution?