Posts Tagged ‘Darwinism’

Last time (Part 1 & Part 2), Beckwith & Koukl demonstrated how the evolutionary approach to explaining morality actually denies it. Now, for an even bigger problem…

Why Should I?

This third observation uncovers the third and most serious objection to the idea that evolution is adequate to explain morality. One question can never be answered by any evolutionary assessment of ethics: Why ought I be moral tomorrow?

One of the distinctives of morality is its ‘oughtness,’ its moral incumbency. Assessments of mere behavior, however, are descriptive only. Since morality is essentially prescriptive — telling what should be the case as opposed to what is the case — and since all evolutionary assessments of moral behavior are descriptive, then evolution cannot account for the most important thing that needs to be explained: morality’s ‘oughtness’.

Chimpanzee in deep thought

Chimpanzee in deep thought

One question really needs to be answered: Why shouldn’t the chimp (or a human, for that matter) be selfish? The evolutionary answer might be that when we’re selfish, we hurt the group. That answer, however, presumes another moral value, that we ought to be concerned about the welfare of the group. But why should that concern us? They would say ‘because if the group doesn’t survive, then the species doesn’t survive.’ But why should we care about the survival of the species?

Here’s the problem. The responses intended to explain morality ultimately depend on some prior moral notion to hold them together. Based on an evolutionary view, it is difficult to explain why we should not be selfish, or steal, or rape, or even kill tomorrow without smuggling morality into the answer.

The evolutionary explanation disembowels morality, reducing it to mere descriptions of conduct. The best the Darwinist explanation can do — if it succeeds at all — is explain past behavior. It cannot inform future actions. But prescription, not description, is the essence of morality. As we have seen, evolution may be one explanation for the existence of conduct we choose to call moral, but it gives no reason why we should obey any moral rules in the future. If one countered that we have a moral obligation to evolve, then I’ve won my point. If we have moral obligations prior to evolution, then evolution itself can’t be their source.”

Hah! I love it.

Earlier in the chapter, the authors point out:

Evolutionists may be right when they say that we’re not compelled to adopt the morality of evolution. The danger of social Darwinism, however, is not that society must adopt the law of the jungle but rather that it is allowed to. The exploitation of the weak by the strong is morally benign according to Wright’s evolutionary view of morality.

What Darwinists cannot do is give us a reason why we ought not simply copy nature and destroy those who are weak, unpleasant, costly, or just plain boring. If all moral options are legitimate, then it’s acceptable for the strong to rule the weak. No moral restraints would protect the feeble, because moral restraints simply wouldn’t exist….

Bongo is not a bad chimp; he’s just a chimp. No moral rules apply to him. Eat the banana, Bongo.”

Chimp sitting and eating

Bongo the Chimp finishes his banana

In my last post (Part 1), Koukl & Beckwith explained why morality entails more than mere conduct; motive and intent are also parts of the equation.

Denial by Neo-Darwin

This leads us to the second problem, which runs much deeper than the first. When morality is reduced to patterns of behavior chosen by natural selection for the survival value, then morality is not explained; it’s denied. Wright admits as much. [This is a reference to Robert Wright, journalist and author of The Moral Animal — Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology.] Regarding the conscience he says: ‘The conscience doesn’t make us feel bad the way hunger feels bad, or good the way sex feels good. It makes us feel as if we have done something that’s wrong or something that’s right. Guilty or not guilty. It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we’re in touch with higher truth. Truly a shameless ploy’.

Evolutionists like Wright are ultimately forced to admit that what we think is a ‘higher truth’ or morality turns out to be a ‘shameless ploy’ of nature, a description of animal behavior conditioned by the environment for survival. We’ve given that conduct a label, they argue: morality. But they say there is no real right and wrong.

Comtemplative chimp

Contemplative chimp

Does Bongo, the chimp, actually exhibit genuine moral behavior? Does he understand the difference between right and wrong? Does he make principled choices to do what’s right? Is he worthy of blame and punishment for doing wrong? Of course not, Wright says. Bongo merely does in a primitive way what humans do in a more sophisticated manner. We respond according to our genetic conditioning, a program ‘designed’ by millions of years of evolution.

Philosopher Michael Ruse admits that evolution and objective morality are at odds: ‘Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…. Never the less… such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction… and any deeper meaning is illusory.’

The evolutionary approach does not explain morality: it denies it. Instead, it explains why we think moral truths exist when, in fact, they don’t.”

Go here for Part 3.

Every once in awhile, you hear someone trying to describe how evolution/Darwinism — really, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis — explains “morality”. Often the explanations involve recent observations of “morals” (or the rudiments thereof) among one or another type of animal — elephants, whales, birds, cats, dogs, apes, etc. But, IMHO, there is always something missing. The naturalistic philosophers and scientists never really explain the concept of the transcendant, objective morality. At best, all they can do is suggest why certain individuals or communities — human or perhaps not — may adopt a certain code or guidelines to live by. Why is that?

Rather than try to piece something together myself, I’d like to address this issue, at least in part, by quoting from a couple philosophers. (Don’t worry; they are quite readable for us layfolk.) The next three posts will constitute a passage — roughly 3 pages’ worth — from Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (1998), by Francis C. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl. Hope you enjoy it!

More Than What You Do

Recent studies have attempted to show that animals exhibit rudimentary moral behavior. In one case, a group of chimpanzees ‘punished’ Bongo, a ‘selfish’ member of their band, by withholding food from him. Apparently the moral rule was this: Chimps shouldn’t be selfish.

Chimp eathing a banana

Chimp eathing a banana (ooh-ooh! yum!)

This assessment has serious problems. First, drawing conclusions about animal morality simply from behavior reduces morality to conduct. But true morality also entails nonbehavioral elements, too, like intent and motive.

We can’t infer actual moral obligations from the mere fact of a chimp’s conduct. We can observe that chimps in community share food and that when they do they survive better. But we can’t conclude from this that Bongo ought to share his bananas or else he’ll be immoral because he hasn’t contriguted to the survival of his community.

Further, in fixing blame we distinguish between an act done by accident and the same act committed on purpose. The behavior is the same, but the intent is different. We don’t usually blame people for accidents: If the boy didn’t intend to trip the old lady, we don’t fault him.

We also give attention to the issue of motive. We withhold blame even if the youngster tripped the elderly woman on purpose if the motive is acceptable: He tripped her to keep her from running in front of a train….

Motive and intent cannot be determined simply by looking at behavior. In fact, some good behavior might turn out to be tainted, depending on the motive and intent: giving to the poor when one wants to be well thought of, instead of having a genuine concern for the recipients. Indeed, it seems one can be immoral without any behavior at all, such as plotting an evil deed that one is never able to carry out.

Morality informs behavior, judging it either good or bad; it’s not identical to behavior. Rather it is something deeper than habitual patterns of physical interaction. Therefore we can’t draw conclusions about animal morality simply based on what we observe in their conduct.”

Go here for Part 2 and Part 3.

Fossil of Ida (Darwinius masillae)

Fossil of Ida (Darwinius masillae)

She’s back in the news, but just barely. That 47 million-years-old skeleton of what may be the earliest-known primate, Darwinius masillae (aka “Ida”), is getting some more attention — at least, in scientific circles.

As you may recall (go here, then come back), there was a lot of hype last year when Ida was revealed to the world with her being trumpeted as “clear proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution” and the “eighth wonder of the world”. Professor Jorn Hurum et al. were pushing the idea that Ida was not lemur-like enough to be a true strepsirrhine, so she had to be a proto-haplorhine, and therefore a distant “missing link” cousin of modern humans. But, in addition to turning up their noses at the sensationalism surrounding the find, critics said the claims being made about Ida’s place in the “family tree” (or, more accurately, “bush”) were questionable, at best, and the remains required further examination by additional experts.

Now, those experts have completed their study and published their own findings in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution,” says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. “Every year, scientists describe new fossils that contribute to our understanding of primate evolution. What’s amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it’s nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn’t already know from fossils of closely related species.”

As Blythe Williams, lead researcher and anthropologist at Duke University, pointed out:

There’s this enormous body of literature that has built up over the years. The Darwinius research completely ignored that body of literature.”

Those who determined last year that Ida was a haplorhine highlighted certain features she shared with monkeys, apes and humans — namely, a short snout and a deep jaw. But, Williams’ team points out that this is not uncommon, even among strepsirrhines (i.e., lemurs & lorises). In fact, Ida is missing most of the key anatomical features — e.g., a middle ear with two chambers and a plate of bone that shields the eyes from the chewing muscles — that would place her firmly in the haplorhini Suborder. Thus, says Kirk. “[Y]ou can forget about Darwinius being a close relative of humans or other anthropoids.”

I knew it all along….

In a paper published in BioEssays journal last year, the authors admitted that the event known as the “Cambrian Explosion” still has no plausible explanation within a materialistic paradigm.

The Cambrian Period is the name given that time in geological reckoning that spanned from roughly 542 million years ago (Mya) to 488 Mya. The period immediately preceding the Cambrian is known as the Ediacaran, during which the fossil record shows traces of the earliest known complex multicellular organisms. But, these globe-spanning lifeforms (some soft-bodied, some calcifying), which are almost exclusively distinct from later ones, were wiped out in an extinction event.

The Cambrian Explosion, sometimes referred to as “biology’s big bang”, is the name given to the sudden appearance of representatives of all but one of the modern phyla. They were completely new, with no apparent ties to the Ediacarans. These phyla total anywhere from 35 to 70+ distinct body plans, depending on what system you use. Now, this “sudden” appearance actually took place over a period of about 5-10 million years — possibly only ~2 million years in China’s Yunnan province. But, for any strongly materialistic theory, that “geological instant” is waaaaay too short a time to explain how these completely new lifeforms, organized into fully-functioning ecosystems from the get-go, showed up virtually out of nowhere, when there is little-to-no evidence that could link them to Pre-Cambrian fauna. In fact, instead of the gradual evolutionary transformations as expected based on Darwin’s ideas, the fossil record reveals explosive appearances every time biological innovation occurs.


Trilobite fossil

According to the BioEssays article,

“[T]he Earth’s biota changed in profound and fundamental ways, going from an essentially static system billions of years in existence to the one we find today, a dynamic and awesomely complex system whose origin seems to defy explanation…. [T]he materialistic basis of the Cambrian explosion has become more elusive, not less, the more we know about the event itself, and cannot be explained away by coupling extinction of intermediates with long stretches of geologic time, despite the contrary claims of some modern neo-Darwinists.”  (Kevin J. Peterson, Michael R. Dietrich and Mark A. McPeek, “MicroRNAs and metazoan macroevolution: insights into canalization, complexity, and the Cambrian explosion,” BioEssays, Vol. 31 (7):736 – 747 (2009).)

The authors don’t really venture any explanations of their own, other than passing mention of the open niche hypothesis and adaptive radiation. They go on to describe how, contrary to evolutionary theory, the number of phyla & body plans decreased over the eons since the Cambrian, rather than increasing. (For more information about the Cambrian Explosion and discoveries from the past decade, go here, here, here, & here.)

Of course, just because some evolutionary scientists are recognizing the shortcomings of their theory (in this area, at least), it does not mean that anyone is actually admitting defeat. Research and debate will continue, as it should, for many years to come. But, until scientists are truly free to push past the predominant paradigm of philosophical materialism, I doubt we will get a theory with adequate explanatory power & scope.

For a graphic demonstration of this topic, check out the DVD “Darwin’s Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record”. I haven’t seen it, yet, but it’s supposed to use some pretty amazing CGI to bring the Cambrian creatures to life and illustrates the Darwin-defying nature of the Cambrian Explosion.

The 2004 discovery (reported in 2006) of a well-preserved fossil creature dubbed Tiktaalik was hailed as the “missing link” that finally solidified the “fish to tetrapod” transition — a “snapshot” of “a fossil fish in the act of adapting toward a life on land”. Dated to 375-383 Mya, Tiktaalik was concluded to be an intermediary between the sarcopterygian fishes (i.e., Eusthenopteron and Panderichthys) and early tetrapods (i.e., Acanthostega and Ichthyostega). Or, as some call it, a “fishapod”. Some paleontologists have made highly controversial claims of evidence for a “wrist” and fingers, as well as muscular forefins. It had a spiracle, and evidence suggests lungs & gills and eventual development of a more robust ribcage. Along with certain intercranial structures, all these developments were believed to allow Tiktaalik to breathe and support itself on solid ground. Tiktaalik is also the first fish (or, something like it) known to have a “neck”, because it lacked the bony plates in the gill area which restrict head movement.

Some have argued that it is more appropriate to classify Tiktaalik as simply a fish, rather than part-fish/part-amphibian. Notably, its fin is completely finlike, showing no real evidence of transforming into a foot, which is precisely the key feature needed to justify calling it a “transitional form” from fish to tetrapod.  It is also an “inconvenience” that Tiktaalik had no precursors to fingers like Panderichthys did, despite the fact that Tiktaalik is supposed to be further along the evolutionary ladder. Although the Tiktaalik specimens are incredibly well-preserved, they shed little light on the evolution of the soft anatomy requisite for living on land. Furthermore, a true intermediate form would have needed to simultaneously be evolving many features & abilities just to survive its transition from water-dweller to land-dweller — e.g., new ways to keep from drying out on land, specialized structures for breathing oxygen, new methods of obtaining food and water, etc.

In 2008, Jennifer Clack, Per Ahlberg, et al. published their findings on Ventastega, another fossil discovery dating to 365 Mya. This basil tetrapod, which some factors suggest lived in a tidal sea, was “probably more aquatic than terrestrial,” yet “it was more tetrapod than fish….” They classified it as intermediate between the ‘elpistostegids’ (e.g., Panderichthys & Tiktaalik) and Devonian tetrapods (e.g., Acanthostega & Ichthyostega). As far as I can tell, though, they have no actual Ventastega fossils dating earlier than Acanthostega, so this transitional status is no more than “educated speculation”. Plus, it isn’t as “advanced” as some other tetrapods, so it seems to be out of place or anachronistic.

Now, here is what blew everything out of the water, so to speak. Recently, at an old quarry in southeastern Poland were found multiple sets of tracks of a tetrapod — actually, from multiple individuals of different sizes — in what looks to be an ancient marine shoreline. According to Per Ahlberg of Sweden’s Uppsala University, a member of the team that found the tracks, “[They are] fossil of footprints that give us the earliest record of how our very distant ancestors moved out of the water and moved on to the land and took their first steps.”

Tetrapod tracks

397 Mya Tetrapod tracks (borrowed from BBC News)

The footprints, some of which show distinct signs of digits and ankles, date much earlier than they “should”; specifically, they are quite solidly placed at 395-397 million years old. That is 12 million years or more before Tiktaalik, which rules out Tiktaalik as transitional between fish and the first tetrapod. In fact, this now pushes the earliest known tetrapod (though we don’t have an actual skeletal fossil to name, yet) back by at least 18 million years. Furthermore, these trackways “show that the first tetrapods thrived in the sea, trampling the mud of coral-reef lagoons; this is at odds with the long-held view that river deltas and lakes were the necessary environments for the transition from water to land during vertebrate evolution.”

What to make of all this? It is a reminder of a few things that we often need reminding of. First, the oldest known example of a thing is not always the oldest ever. This is just as true in paleontology as it is in other historical sciences, like archaeology. This is often true for the latest known examples, as well. Second, morphologically transitional forms are not always chronologically transitional, and vice versa. That is, Thing X may have features that look to be a mix of Thing A and Thing B, but dating methods sometimes show that Thing X cannot possibly have been a developmental intermediate between A and B. Thus, any theory that assumed such would be false. (Remember the case of the Archaeopteryx?) This is all the more reason to remember that such theories must be held with reserve, always provisional upon things like further physical specimens for evidence, better and more-refined technologies, and mathematical probabilities of events within known parameters. Also, beware of letting assumptions & biases get in the way of facts.

This brings me to my third observation, which is that, once again, the “proof” for neo-Darwinism isn’t nearly as solid as many of its proponents like to proclaim. Indeed, even before this current discovery, there were many competing ideas of how to best classify the various fishes, potential fishapods, and primitive amphibians, precisely because the different mosaics of “transitional” features found in different epochs make it far from clearcut. For example, was Panderichthys a fish or a fishapod? Was Acanthostega a fishapod or a true tetrapod? One’s opinion on matters like these determine where one thinks they should go in the “tree of life”, which, of course, is actually more of a bush. Indeed, many different models have been advanced and then abandoned over the years. The trackways in Poland just throw another wrench into the works.

With the above said, this latest find does NOT necessarily disprove evolutionary theory. It merely means that the EARLIEST tetrapods are older than previously thought AND that they are not quite where they were expected. Paleontologists must now look at Early Devonian (416-397 Mya) formations for even EARLIER transitions. They will also need to find EVEN EARLIER lobe-finned or other fishes as candidates for the tetrapods’ progenitors. (Perhaps Coelacanth will get another chance?) And what of Tiktaalik and the other creatures discussed above? It is still possible that they do represent a separate and unrelated, fish-to-tetrapod transition. But, one has to wonder if the Darwinian process can account for all the genetic & systemic changes needed to go from fully aquatic to land-dwelling, especially in the required timeframe of just a few million years.

Of course, this assumes that the fishes & fishapods actually transitioned into anything new. Perhaps they were stable forms in their own right, well-adapted (or, well-designed, if you prefer) for living in their particular environment. After all, they seem to have been fully-functional, lacking any unfinished, half-formed adaptations. They were not mere works-in-progress.

I’ll finish with this quote from Henry Gee, editor of the journal Nature: “A fairly complete picture of tetrapod evolution, built up over the past twenty years, has been replaced by a blank canvas overnight…. It means that the neatly gift-wrapped correlation between stratigraphy and phylogeny, in which elpistostegids represent a transitional form in the swift evolution of tetrapods in the mid-Frasnian [stage of the Devonian Period], is a cruel illusion. If – as the Polish footprints show – tetrapods already existed in the Eifelian [stage], then an enormous evolutionary void has opened beneath our feet.”

At the very least, the discovery in Poland represents somewhat of a paradigm shift. It should be fascinating to see what evidence future discoveries bring to this debate….

First the California Science Center agreed to show the pro-Intelligent Design film “Darwin’s Dilemma” last October (along with a pro-Darwin film). Then they changed their minds when pressured by associates at the Smithsonian Institution. Their excuse was that a rental agreement had been violated by the film’s sponsor, the American Freedom Alliance (AFA). The AFA has brought suit and claims the cancellation was unconstitutional (see LA Times article here). Now, recent evidence has revealed an illegal cover-up of the details behind the censorship. Here‘s the story…