Readers of this blog know where I stand on this topic, so I won’t spend any time discussing that. I recently began reading two books, though, that are related. One is Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design and the other is Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True. I was thinking I would be reading these books simultaneously, and it would be interesting to compare and contrast them as I progressed. However, I only have the Coyne book for two weeks, and at the rate I read books (slowly) I can’t spare any of that time on much of anything else.
But as I’m going through it I’m finding I want to keep track of various comments I have. I’m on page ten of the book, and there are three points I want to make already. So I figure I’m going to write a new blog post each time I have one of these moments, and then I’ll stick them all together on a page or a final post when I’m finished. For now, I’ll do the three I have in mind all in this post.
Here is the cover of the book. It has an image of four animals that I will simplisticly label a dinosaur, a feathered dinosaur, a primitive bird (with the biological use of ‘primitive’ meaning older, not necessarily more simple), and finally a modern day bird. The back cover has the skeletons of each of these creatures illustrated. The inside flap of the back cover has a blurb about the cover, and it begins, “The jacket depects a chronological sequence of fossils showing the evolution of birds.” Ahh, a concise summary of the book in four small drawings. But the very next sentence is telling, “We do not know whether the actual line of descent included the first three species, but the origin of modern birds almost certainly involved a sequence very much like this one.” Ahh, I say to myself, a very concise summary of the foundation of modern evolutionary theory.
It’s also worth noting that this sequence suggests what is called the cursorial view of the evolution of birds, which says dinosaurs ran on their back legs and developed wings that helped them make longer and longer ‘hops’, which eventually became flight. There is another camp, though, that have good reason to reject this view, and insteady argue for the arboreal theory. The arboreal theory is that small reptiles lived in trees and would jump down and glide further and further until it became flight. So there are at least two contradictory positions within the evolutionary system that are presently battling it out (you can read more about it on Wikipedia). The book may deal with this in a later chapter, but you’d never guess it from the cover jacket illustrations and blurb.
Darwin, who Coyne has repeatedly praised already in the book, wrote about what he called the imperfection of the geological record. You can read what he says in chapters six and ten of The Origin of Species. Here is a summary of the problem and his general solution (although he does offer several others):
On the Absence or Rarity of Transitional Varieties.—As natural selection acts solely by the preservation of profitable modifications, each new form will tend in a fully-stocked country to take the place of, and finally to exterminate, its own less improved parent-form and other less-favoured forms with which it comes into competition. Thus extinction and natural selection go hand in hand. Hence, if we look at each species as descended from some unknown form, both the parent and all the transitional varieties will generally have been exterminated by the very process of the formation and perfection of the new form.
But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth? It will be more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the Geological Record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been imperfectly made, and only at long intervals of time.
So Darwin’s theory requires there to be countless transitional forms that existed on the earth in its history. The reason we don’t have fossils of these forms, Darwin argued in 1859, is that we just haven’t found them. They’re out there, and we’ll dig them up as we make a better record of fossils.
Fast forward to 2009, where Jerry Coyne in this book discusses these transitional forms and says (on p. 6), “Although common ancestors are no longer with us, and their fossils nearly impossible to document (after all, they represent but a single species out of thousands in the fossil record), we can sometimes discover fossils closely related to them, species having features that show common ancestry.” (my emphasis)
Based on his theory, Darwin predicted a great abundance of transitional forms in the fossil record over time as more and more fossils were dug up and methods were improved. 150 years of improvements and digging, though, have only brought us to a hand waving dismissal of Darwin’s prediction. But it is still supposed to give support to Darwin’s theory (that he based his prediction upon)?
This one is the most surprising to me. On page 9 of the book, Coyne is discussing the classification of organisms. By looking at various anatomical, physiological, behavioral, and other characteristics of organisms, they can be categorized into groupings. These groupings can then be subdivided on down to the individual species level. This is called a nested hierarchy, as you computer geeks will know. This method of classification started long before Darwin, he says, with Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1635*. The classifications performed by many different biologists had very similar conclusions based on this ‘natural classification system’. Coyne concludes then that this classification system is very strong evidence for evolution. “Why?” he asks, “Because we don’t see such a nested arrangement if we’re trying to arrange objects that haven’t arisen by an evolutionary process of splitting and descent.” He uses a matchbook collection as an analogy, saying they can be divided in any number of different ways. “Matchbooks resemble the kinds of creatures expected under the creationist explanation of life. … Under this scenario, we wouldn’t expect to see species falling into a nested hierarchy of forms that is recognized by all biologists.”
The trouble with this point, though, is that guy that started it all waybackwhen, Carl Linnaeus? Yeah, he was a young earth creationist. He accepted the Genesis account of creation. In fact, he based his work on the classification of organisms on the certainty of divine order in creation. I can’t find an English translation of his book to get the quote first hand, but he is said to have written that the Earth’s creation is the glory of God, as seen from the works of Nature by Man alone. That the study of nature would reveal the Divine Order of God’s creation, and it was the naturalist’s task to construct a “natural classification” that would reveal this Order in the universe.
Pretty much discredits Coyne’s argument and turns it on its head.
*Carl Linnaeus wasn’t born until 1707. Dr. Coyne must have gotten his dates mixed up, or made a typo. I think he meant 1735, which is when Linnaeus first published his Systema Naturae.