Thursday, October 15, 2009

Evolution in Action

I remember I used to go to “Church School” once a week back when I was a little kid at Solvay Elementary. On one occasion, the nun teaching the class went off on a creationist rant, asking “If evolution were true, why isn’t it happening today? Why don’t we see monkeys turning into people today? Hmm??” She asked this question not to trained scientists, educated and experienced in the particulars of Darwinist theory and schooled in articulate debate, but rather to a handful of terrified third-graders who had no intention of arguing with her about this or any other subject. I recall a separate occasion where I was late or had missed a class or had otherwise been “bad” and she remarked how surprising it was that somebody named after the Archangel Michael (was I? Or was it just a popular name at the time?) would be so naughty. I had no response for that, so I was again uncharacteristically silent.

I think Creationism is bunk, plain and simple. If you want to believe that a supreme being had some impact on the creation of the universe back at the point of the Big Bang, fine. And if you’d prefer to think that it was a divine nudge that caused the Earth to coalesce from a ball of molten rock and various chemicals into a planet capable of supporting life, I’ll agree to disagree but I’m not inclined to get all up in your face about it (mostly because that’s not my style). I mean, religion in general is great if your faith gives you comfort and helps you to be a better person (and assuming it doesn't turn you into a Christian Crusader/Al Quaeda terrorist/IRA bomber/etc.) and I don't pretend to know it all - maybe there's even some truth buried in there. But the whole Young Earth Creationist theory is outright wacky to me. I can’t even pretend to go along with the theory that the Earth is only 10,000 or so years old, when there’s so much evidence that it’s impossible. When you have to go through all manner of nutty contortions to disprove what’s right in front of your eyes, you’re probably trying too hard.

But what really got me thinking about this today was a visit to my daughter’s orthodontist. She has some missing adult teeth, and he remarked that this was becoming much more common. “Back when I started my practice in the 70s, I might have seen one kid a year with a missing adult tooth. Now? She’s my fifth case today.” He went on to say that the current theory was that human brains were getting bigger, and the jaws were getting smaller, resulting in hypodontia. Which, incidentally, has been found in a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association to be an indicator that a woman is 8.1 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Yay. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but it’s not directly pertinent to this blog article.

So if I were to respond to that nun today, I think I’d be inclined to argue that, in fact, evolution IS still happening today. It’s hard to see because it generally takes place over thousands or millions of years, but sometimes there’s an evolutionary leap or a mutation that skips that lengthy period and happens right in front of you, and it’s conceivable that we’re seeing that now. Aside, of course, from the geological strata and paleontological fossil records, that show the multi-million-year evolution of past and current species.

I don’t think my daughter is a member of a new species just yet – a homo superior who will need to either join with Dr. Xavier’s X-Men or Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants in a struggle for the future of mankind. But there’s plenty of fiction out there that deals with the supposition this may someday occur on some level or other. I’ve written before about minority groups of humans, including one “superhuman” group, the telepaths of Babylon 5. But there are lots of others. For instance, much of the book Dune, by Frank Herbert, revolves around the work of the Bene Gesserit order to create through selective breeding the ultimate man – the Kwisatz Haderach – who can see into the future and go through space and time where they cannot. I really did want to read that whole series, but I could never get past the first couple of books before being bored and confused. Maybe I’m not sufficiently evolved to appreciate them?

Then, of course, we have Marvel’s X-Men and, in fact, a big part of the Marvel universe is populated by superhumans with powers borne of genetic mutation either at birth (in the case of the X-Men and the other “true mutants”) or because of some radiological exposure (in the case of The Fantastic Four’s cosmic radiation, Spider-Man’s radioactive spider-bite, and the Incredible Hulk’s dose of gamma rays). There was also a great episode I remember seeing of either a newer incarnation of the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits, where a poor schlub in an office was struggling to keep up with his co-workers, who had all been genetically altered in utero to be smarter, faster, better-looking, etc. The story added a fictional “side-effect” wherein some attempts at genetic alteration resulted in horrific troll-like monsters, but even if you set that aside it still raises some interesting questions about living in a world where some people have been given access to a greater number of natural talents than they’d otherwise be entitled to. Even if it’s illegal in places like the U.S., there will always be countries where the brave or foolhardy or obscenely wealthy can pay their money and take their chances on backroom medical technologies like this. Hopefully my daughter’s bigger brain will give her an edge. Looking at her math homework, I think she’d be better off with the extra teeth.


  1. You should read some of the literature available in Eastern civilizations particularly the Hindu Cosmology, when you want to get their interesting take on Creation vs Evolution debate. They actually talk about a mix of both i.e. time is not linear in Hindu Cosmogeny. It is cyclical or somewhat spasmodic, punctuated with Bing Bang like events.

    Now there is also a divine intervention aspect in their versions, but what is fascianting is how much the Hindu concepts run closely with modern scientific/evolutionary concepts.

    This is not to suggest that those ancient Indians were scientists. But it is possible that the Ancient Indians and the Modern Western scientists are talking about the same thing - albeit with different frames of reference.

    And this thinking that it is possible to look at the same one thing and yet be able to describe it in multiple ways, is indeed the more rational/respectable way for the next generations to go forward rather than getting lost in CReation/Evolution debate.

    I wish and pray that your daughter grows up with that kind of understanding.

  2. Better make way for Homo Superior!

    The guy playing guitar in the background looks just like Kevin Sorbo.