The Descent of Woman: A Critique of Elaine Morgan

The Descent of Woman: A Critique

(The Descent of Woman, Elaine Morgan 1972, Stein and Day, New York)

There is an unfortunate tendency among humans to reject ideas out-of-hand that come from people who are not part of whatever group we have created. This is unfortunate because we become parochial in our views and knowledge and can make very good use of ideas and information from other disciplines.

One of the reasons why Morgan’s AAH was not well received by the scientific community was because she was an “outsider.”  It is true, Elaine Morgan (1920-2013) was an outsider to the scientific community.  She was well educated with a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature and had a successful career as a BAFTA-winning writer for television. Well versed in English literature and a competent writer she had no knowledge of science, how to think as a scientist and how a scientist presents his/her arguments to support their hypothesis, citing their sources, etc.

Morgan has made a valuable contribution to paleoanthropology by forcing us (most of whom are men) to consider the part women played in hominid evolution, and by making us rethink our theories. However, her hypothesis should not be accepted solely because it is “non-sexist” or feminist but on its ability to explain and or predict evidence and its logical consistency. Here she fails and in a large part because she is an “outsider.” She lacks an in-depth knowledge of the literature of the various disciplines she draws from neither does she have a broad background in any of them. Furthermore the way she structures her argument, the facts she uses, and the way she uses them shows her lack of understanding.

Morgan came up with the theory first then went looking for the facts to support it. Unfortunately this is how most of us do it. It is like the paranoid person, if you accept the first premise (they are being persecuted), everything else it readily explainable, or else just ignored. Supposedly the way to do it, is to collect facts and see what they show. Realistically we do start with a theory and then gather the evidence. This can work if you consider all the evidence and correct your theory to fit the new evidence. You do not adjust your evidence to fit your theory. Morgan points out, quite correctly, that proponents of the savanna hypothesis are sometimes vague about how or why hominids became bipedal or began using tools, that their theories are “just-so-stories.” However she then creates a just-so-story of her own. Some of her arguments are circular, some of her examples are irrelevant,and the sequence of when adaptations happened is confused. She picks and chooses what supports her theory and ignores the rest. She points out facts the contradict the savanna hypothesis but never the ones that might support it.

According to her, the “torrid” Pliocene set in so rapidly there was not enough time to adapt to the new conditions and survive on the savanna (all the other savanna mammals were able to adapt). Only retreating to the sea provided a buffer to give time to evolve, but we adapted to the sea instead. We became bipedal, naked, and very human in shape. There was enough time for that but no enough for more than partial webbing of the digits (for a few humans) and then the beginnings of glands to remove excess salt (tear ducts). Ten million years and “she” had hardly begun to adapt. Whales went from four-legged terrestrial mammals to a totally marine mammal in the same amount of time. Also, hominids lost their fur because it was uncomfortable when wet, tails were dispensed with because they were in the way, buttocks became enlarged because sitting on sand and rocks was uncomfortable. Things evolve because the hominids want them. This is not how evolution works. Morgan is a Lamarckian. Her theory is “simpler” than others, and that is why it is true. Her explanations are just as simplistic as the others and for the same reason. She glosses over, doing the same thing she, rightly, complains others do.

She does not understand evolution, she does not understand how to construct a logical argument. She contradicts herself and is circular. What happens early hasn’t happened yet later, her sequence of events isn’t clear and consistent. Many things occur because of a helpless, slow-growing, naked infant (apparently she assumes this to be a fact because contemporary infants are), although in the beginning the infant was similar to any other primate infant. The helpless, slow-growing part only comes with the big brain, with a bipedal female giving birth to a large-brained infant. Morgan herself says these hominids had small brains. They were ancestors to the australopithecines who had chimpanzee-sized brains and infants that grew at the same rate as chimpanzees.

Morgan explains the evolution of the human nose as an adaptation to keeping water out of our sinuses when swimming and diving. If we had noses like gorillas we could not keep water out, so we grew noses that extended out from our face and had nostrils pointed downward. This supposedly keeps water out. Seals and most (all?) other aquatic mammals use muscles to close their noses. You would think that after ten million years we would have come up with something better than a nose with slightly downward opening nostrils. I get water up my nose frequently when in the water so my nose doesn’t work real well keeping water out. Morgan points to the proboscis monkeys as an example that this is a natural way for primates to adapt to an aquatic habitat. Actually she does not claim that they are aquatic. Proboscis monkeys live in lowland rain forests and mangrove swamps and they have been seen swimming and diving in the water. They even have partially webbed feet. The noses of adults are well developed, extending beyond the lips becoming pendulous in males. The nostrils of the adults open downward, in infants the nose still turns upward. The fact that the nose does not fully develop its characteristics until adulthood and is much larger in males than in the females (sexual dimorphism) has led primatologists to assume that it is a secondary sexual characteristic (like human beards, female breasts, etc.) and is the result of sexual selection. The primary “use” of the nose is to attract the opposite sex. Why hominids with ten million years of aquatic life developed a nose no where near as large or downward pointing as the proboscis monkey, or a little bit of “webbing” between the thumb and index finger (so little I bet you never even thought of it as a web) and a small percentage of people have a little bit of webbing between their fingers, while the proboscis monkey which is not aquatic has partial webbing between all the fingers and the toes, I don’t understand. They are much more adapted to the aquatic life Morgan hypothesizes for our ancestors than we are. Maybe our nose is more of an adaptation to humidifying and removing the dust from the air of the arid and dusty savanna. The lengthen nasal passage provides more space for more hairs to trap the dust and more membranes to moisturize the dry air before it reaches the sinuses, this keeps the sinus membranes from getting excessively dry and they are more efficient at moisturizing the air before it gets to the lungs. The angle of the nostrils is just a result of what happens when a primate nose begins to protrude from the face. As for the “webbing” (that piece of skin) between the digits of our hands and feet, maybe it is just a “convenient” way to arrange the skin between fleshy digits. Morgan would say it is a holdover from our aquatic days, maybe she is right—our aquatic amphibian days.

Morgan brings up elephants and rhinos in the chapter on the hominids’ return to land (which she very casually and cursorily passes over). She uses them as possible examples of mammals which probably were aquatic and have returned to land (her own idea). Anyway she explains the baggy skin of rhinos, and also elephants, as being caused by their having lost a lot of weight. She says that if you were to “inflate them” (her words)until the skin was tight, they would resemble dugongs or seals, so they must have been aquatic and when they returned to land they lost a lot of weight and the skin hung in loose folds the same way that an obese human’s skin does when he or she loses a lot of weight rapidly. Humans are not born fat or with baggy skin. Those of us who have gained excessive weight do not have tight skin. As we get bigger (fatter) the skin grows and if we lose a lot of fat quickly, the skin does not shrink as fast and it does become loose and baggy. Apparently Morgan thinks that this becomes a gene that is past down (okay, maybe not in humans but in rhinos at least, told you she was a Lamarckian) and continues to be past down millions of years later, even though it is maladaptive. This particular point is one of the more ridiculous and senseless ones she makes. However most of the others are only a little less senseless, a little less illogical.

She also uses the pig as an example of an aquatic animal that returned to the land. The “evidence for this is the animal’s hairless-ness and fondness for wallowing when it gets hot. She is talking about the modern breeds of pigs, the ones bred by humans over the past thousand years or so, not their wild ancestor the European wild boar which is hairy. Oh wait, she did sort of mention them. Wild pigs are hairy—a coarse, sparse, scruffy fur because they “forgot” how to grow a decent fur coat while they were aquatic and now that they are terrestrial again they can’t remember how. If wallowing is a sign of an aquatic past then buffalo and elk, as only two examples of animals that wallow, must have been aquatic at one time using her logic. She picks certain examples to support her theory and ignores others that counter her examples. She ignores the implications of her own logic.

Morgan states early in her book that the savanna hypothesis for the beginnings of tool use (throwing rocks for defense) would not work because a rock would only be picked up if it happens to be there, in the field-of-view, when needed. Furthermore, it takes practice to throw accurately enough to hit your target of predator. The first time an ape throws a rock, he (her choice of gender) will miss and think that there is no point in doing that again (negative feedback/reinforcement). Without immediate success the behavior would not be repeated, the ape would never experiment and practice enough to discover the benefits, the potential of using tools (experimenting is a lot of failures, negative feedback). The savanna hypothesis does not explain the evolution of tool using behavior.

Towards the end of the book, Morgan describes how she (her choice of gender) invented containers, clay pots to be exact. (I believe that there is a very high likelihood that it was a female that invented the container, a skin bag, I have no problem with her choice of gender.) It seems Ms. Naked Ape got tired of carrying seeds, nuts, tubers, etc. back to camp a few small handfuls at a time. Then one day down at the waterhole she noticed hoof prints in the dried mud and how they held water. In a flash of inspiration, she realized that they could hold seeds and if she could dig the dried print up, she could carry it about, holding the seeds, etc. After several failed attempts because the dried mud broke (negative feedback) she gave up on that. She decided instead to make her own “footprint” that wasn’t part of the ground. She experimented with mud of various consistencies and dried in the sun (probably for varying lengths of time) to make containers. Eventually she succeeded, in spite of all the negative feedback (and the fragility of sun-dried mud). Every reason she gives for why the savanna hypothesis’s explanation for the start of tool use is not valid, applies at least as strongly in this case. She contradicts herself.

When I saw the documentary on Morgan’s AAH, I thought that the producers had probably summarized some of the major points of the theory, simplified it all to fit into the hour length of the show. The vagueness of details and the lack of good supporting data, I thought was the product of fitting the book into the medium of a TV show, and the book would be much more detailed, with more supporting facts. I was both right and wrong. The documentary was a very sympathetic presentation of the AAH. Too sympathetic in a way, the producers left out the more senseless parts, like the invention of pottery or language, and added a new fact or two, like the Danakil Depression originally having been underwater, implying that this is where the aquatic ape lived. However, the vagueness of details and lack of supporting data was not solely a result of condensing the book to a one hour TV documentary for the general public. The examples used in the show are the same ones, the only ones, presented in the book. The book itself is a bit vague, simple, and lacking in good supporting data. The book was rather clear about when we were supposedly aquatic. It was in the 10 million year long Pliocene, after the end of the Miocene and before the Pleistocene and the australopithecines. And we were marine animals not riverine, lacustrine, or esturine.

The show was wise to skim over the details of when, we have new dates on the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene, and on the australopithecines. The Miocene ended about 5mya and Pleistocene began by 2mya, if not 2.5mya. The Pliocene was no more than 3 million years long and we have australopithecine fossil as old as 4.2my and a probable ancestor 5my old or more. Oh yeah, the older fossils have been found even further from any ocean, deeper in the sub-Saharan savanna. Morgan cannot be held at fault for these changes in dates and the finding of more fossils. As a good scientist she would take these new facts into consideration and correct her theory as needed. She just ignores these, this is not science.

One last comment: the ocean was not a safe refuge from a predators. It may true that
leopards will not go into the water, but they (and lions, hyenas, and jackals) will patrol the shore for whatever they can eat. Sharks will come into shallow water at least occasionally for prey. But there is a far more dangerous and common predator that nobody has mentioned: Crocodylus niloticus. The Nile crocodile lives (or did live) in all of Africa’s rivers south of the Sahara and can live along the coasts. They still kill hundreds of humans every year, hundreds of terrestrial humans.

The Ramapithecus Story: or the dangers of a biased fossil record

As a general rule in paleontology any fossil found is considered (until shown otherwise) to being generally representative of the population it was part of.  That is, it is not an oversize individual, or an unusually small example, or a malformed individual.  And when you have a number fossils from the same species, you will have generally representative sample of both sexes, adults and juveniles.  That is the general expectation but most paleontologists keep in the back of their minds that this may not always be true.  It just might be biased.

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The Ramapithecus Story: or the dangers of a biased fossil record

As an undergrad in the early 70’s, I was introduces to a fossil ape by the name of Ramapithecus punjabicus (Rama’s ape from Punjab).  It was dated in the region of 15mya.  Some paleontologists (i.e. David Pilbeam and Elwyn Simons) had proposed that that Ramapithecus was a human ancestor. This was based on several factors:  it had small canines, a parabolic mandible, lack of canine diastema, and the dryopithcine Y-5 pattern.. First off, some of you may recognize that these features are all “dental.”  This is because all the fossils attributed to Ramapithecus were in fact all parts of the mandible (lower jaw).

Small canines are a feature of hominines (humans and our ancestors). All of the other apes (and monkeys) have large canines. Well, that is, males have large canines and females have ones smaller than males.  Both have smaller lower canines than upper.  This is a sexually dimorphic trait of primates.  A sexually dimorphic trait is one that differs between the sexes of a species.  They may also be called secondary sexual characteristics, especially the traits that develop with sexual maturation.  These traits are why men and women’s bodies have obviously different shapes.

Lower jaw and upper jaws of apes are said to have a U-shape.  That is, the incisors form a nearly straight line, the canines are set back a little and the premolars and molars form nearly straight rows that are parallel to each other, left and right.  In humans the tooth row curves from the center-line (between the central incisors and curving through the molars forming a parabolic-like curve.  All the mandibles of Ramapithecus were incomplete, either left of right, broken at the chin.  So determining the shape of the tooth row was a matter of speculation, and the use of a mirror.

All mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and amphibians are bilaterally symmetrical.  the left side looks pretty much like the right side.  Among the fossils fragments that were found of the austrolopithecine known as Lucy, were her left femur and the ilium (the hip bone).  Because the right side is a mirror image of the left, we know what the right side looks like.  By placing the half mandible next to a  mirror, the reflected image creates an image of the other mandible and the shape of the intact jaw. That is, if the mandible fragment is oriented at the true angle in real life.  Which is a matter of interpretation since the actual suture where the two halves meet is missing.  The “reconstructed  jaw” seemed to be that of a parabolic arcade, a hominine jaw shape.  Again, this is only accurate if the angle is correct.

A canine diastema is a space in the lower jaw that allows the long upper canine to pass by the first premolar and  the jaws to close.  If you feel the tooth right behind your lower canine (or look at it in a mirror), you will feel or see that it has two cusps with a low spot between them.  The tooth is called the first premolar or more commonly a bicuspid because of the two cusps.  In humans, the upper canine fits in the valley between the two cusps.  In the other primates with long canines (fangs) the first cusp is not there.  When the male animal closes it mouth the upper canine slides behind the lower canine and against the premolar.  It is believed that this forms a” honing complex” and sharpens the upper canine. Females have smaller upper canines and a tiny diastema.  Also the lower canine slides in front the upper canine and there is a gap between the upper canine and the lateral incisor. Humans with neither a long upper canine or lower have no diastemata.

The dryopithecine Y-5 pattern refers to the fact the living great apes (this includes humans) have 5 cusps on the surface of their lower molars.  There is a valley down the middle of the tooth with two pairs cusps on inside edge of the tooth and three cusps on the outside edge. The valley between the two inside cusps bifurcates as it passes on either side of the middle cusp looking like a “Y.”  This pattern was first noticed in fossils of Dryopithecus, first found in the late 1800’s  in Miocene deposits in Europe.  This pattern also occurs in humans and indicates a relationship between dryopithecines and humans.  Its presence in ramapithecine molars indicated that Ramapithecus was related to Dryopithecus and possibly a human ancestor. But not necessarily, since other apes, not our ancestors have the Y-5 pattern.  All the Y-5 pattern indicates for sure is descent from Dryopithecus.  Since we have the Y-5 pattern any ancestor of us has to also have it.

Not everyone accepted, based on these traits, that the hypothesis that Ramapithecus was an ancestor was correct.  There was a a lot of discussion (or heated argument) about it.  Added to the morphological argument, several molecular chemists said (based on their immunological work) that Ramapithecus was 10 million or more years to old to be a hominine.

Anyway, that is the background to the story of Ramapithecus. and why it is it was and is an important fossil.  Ramapithecus was among a number of fossils found in the Siwalik Hills of India in the early 1900’s.  Fossils of several ape genera and species were also found, e.g. Sivapithecus, Bramapithecus, and Sugrivapithecus (Shiva’s ape, Brahma’s ape, and Sugriva’s ape).  These all tended to be rather fragmentary mandibles, maxilla, and teeth.  Further study revealed an odd fact, Ramapithecus was known only from fragments of mandibles (the lower jaw) and Bramapithecus was known only from fragments of maxillae (the upper jaw).  Both had small canines and teeth that looked very similar.  Eventually it was realized that they were upper and lower jaw fragments of the same species.  Since Ramapithecus was the first named, the senior name, Bramapithecus was “sunk,” as taxonomists say:  included as a junior synonym of  Ramapithecus.

Sivapithecus was recognized as an ancestral orangutan.  The fragments of the maxilla included enough of the face to include the “nasal gutter” (depressed area on each side of the nasal opening) that is distinctively unique to the living orangutan species.  The teeth were also very similar to the teeth of living orangutans. Males of which have large canines as most primates species do.

This was the way things stood for years. Sivapithecus was an ancestral orangutan, and Ramapithecus/Bramapithecus may be or may not be ancestral to humans.  But probably  not, since the immunological clock, joined to the DNA evidence (molecular clock) gained widespread acceptance that the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans existed about 7 million years ago and therefore Ramapithecus was about 8 million years to old.

Then a new Ramapithecus was found, a fragment of maxilla that extended far enough to the nasal cavity to show a nasal gutter.  Ramapithecines were actually an array of species of Sivapithecus.  To add to this, I recently read that all the ramapithecine fossils were all from females.  So they would all have had small canines in the first place.

The point of all this, is that almost all fossils are fragments.  Very rarely is a major intact part of a skeleton found, let alone a complete one.  Things like age, gender, and just how representative of the entire population it is, is a big question.  The beginning assumption is that all fossils are “ordinary.” It is not a particularly large individual or particularly small (if it is an adult).   Lucy is a small individual (and that rarity a nearly complete skeleton) so there were and still are still questions about how representative she is of  the Australopithecus afarensis female size range.  The Hobbit from Flores raised all kind of questions about whether she small and her small brain were pathological or not.  If the fossil is of a juvenile, is it developing at about normal speed.  The Turkana Boy (AKA Nariokotome Boy or WT-15000), an rare nearly complete skeleton, is a tall (61 inches) 11-12 year old Homo ergaster (an African Homo erectus) would have been 73 inches tall at adulthood.  Because the fossil is of an immature individual it is hard to be sure of the actual age and even sex.  He may have been as young as 7 (still very tall) and may even have been a she.  If the fossil is of a sexually reproducing species there is a 50-50 chance as to which sex you have.  So if you have several fragments of different individuals of the same specie, there is a statistical likelihood that you have a sample of each sex.  But the story of  Ramapithecus is good example of how wrong the basic assumption can be:  all the Ramapithecus mandibles were from female and all the maxillae, formerly known as Bramapithecus, were also female.

There is also the problem of identifying pathologies of a skeleton and not including them in the species definition.  The classic example is Marcellin Boule’s reconstruction of the male Neandertal skeleton from La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. His reconstruction provided the archetypal caveman image, the bent knee, stooped shouldered apish beast.  When Boule examined the skeleton of the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints he recognized that he was seriously crippled by arthritis and injuries from a long hard life.  While the reconstruction may have been accurate for that specific individual at his time of death, it was not at all accurate for how a Neandertal normally looked.  Cave and Strauss reexamined Neandertals in the the 1950s and demonstrated that they walked upright like modern humans and were not so apish as Boule has interpreted the skeleton.

The fossil record is full of potential traps and must be interpreted with caution.

BEASTS OF EDEN

BEASTS OF EDEN

Creationists seem to think that some scientists have looked at say horses and zebras, jaguars and leopards, man and ape, a couple of scraps of fossil bone and said: “Oh, they look similar therefore one evolved from the other,” and created this “theory” about evolution out of thin air. There is far more to it than a few fossils. It is a massive corpus of facts, all woven together into a solid reality that exists all around us, for those who would look.

A while ago I was reading a book (David Rains Wallace, 2004, Beasts of Eden). I do do that, read books, sometimes it seems that that is all I do, is read. But I digress. The book was about mammalian paleontology, both the history of finding mammalian fossils and the evolution of mammals. It included an illustration with four skulls of titanotheres and their specific names arranged (bottom to top) in chronological order. Looking at the skulls (which had been restored to what they probably looked like in life) one could see how the skulls enlarged over time, the jaw/nose lengthening out of proportion to the rest of the skull, the horn moved from about halfway between the nostrils and the eyes, in stages, to the nose, and became larger and in the final skull the horn had a bifurcated tip (looked like a “Y”). The progress was steady by minor changes from species to species. How could anyone deny the evidence? Clearly the first species had evolved into the last. You would have to be willfully blind to refuse to accept the evidence. Or maybe not.

There were only four skulls presented, each from a different species, over several million years. There are similar illustrations for horses, with a few more species over tens of millions of years. After some reflection I realized that based on just what was shown in any of these illustrations, you could deny that they demonstrated the evolution of one species into another, and another, for millions of years until the descendant showed little obvious relation to the original ancestor. I might think you were being overly hard-headed, critical, and a knot-head, by refusing to accept the evidence but then I both accept evolution and know more about what’s behind the illustrations.

If you don’t accept evolution and don’t know (or refuse to know) what the illustrations are based on, how much more evidence exists than is shown, you can convince yourself that they don’t show any evidence for evolution. That is you could if there were only these four titanothere skulls or several horse fossils. For the sake of clarity a few of the species have a fossil chosen to represent the entire species. Sometimes a reconstruction, which may be a composite of several individual fossils, is used for the illustration. I know that the illustrated fossil is representative of a population of fossilized individuals. There is almost always more than one fossil from a species and they are not absolutely identical. Over period of 5-6 years I had the opportunity to spent up to two weeks prospecting for fossils. We spent most of the time searching the same area over again each year. The area is eroding so new material is being continually exposed. Anyway, the most common fossils found were Hyopsodus sp. mandibles (lower jaw bone). The portion (most of the tooth row) ranged from 1.5-2cm in length. I found from four to twelve each field season. The others I was with found more. I don’t know how many we found (there were other geology/paleontology crews in the immediate region also collecting fossils for other institutions) but the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH, where the fossils are curated) has to have hundreds to thousands of jaws from these animals. I have been to the AMNH (and the Kenya National Museum) and seen some of their fossil collection. The fossils on public display in the world’s museums are only a tiny, very tiny, part of their entire collection. They have drawers and shelves full. There may be only fossil remains of 12 different Tyrannosaurus rex in the world (it may be 15) and only a few hundred (not counting fragments) from the hominine species, but where there are thousands to tens of thousands of fossils from some invertebrate species there is no way that any illustration or figure can begin to show the variation present in a species. Neither can they show how the variation grades into another species over time.

It is true that there are some fossil species represented by a single specimen, a single fossil bone even. Australopithecus africanus was just a skull. It was years before more fossils were found that could be attributed to the species. T. rex is known from 12 (or maybe 15) individual specimens. I do not know how many fragments/fossil bones, etc. have been found but they are from 12 separate individuals (since I read that I have heard of the finding of several more individuals). Montana has the record number of finds, something like four including the first (and type) specimen. Some fossil species are rare and/or poorly known. Many extinct species are unknown and will never be known. The fossil record is and always will be incomplete. Having said that, the fossil record does contain much information, just remember that there are limits.

With a single fossil it can be very hard, if not impossible, to decide the sex, age, or size of the individual specimen it represents.  You cannot know how close to being an “average” individual it is.  The fossil Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) is tiny and some of the arguments surrounding her are: is she just an unusually small individual or is she of average size for that species?  Real species are populations of living organisms,. of all ages,  size, and sex.  Until you have a collections of numerous fossil representing the same species from a reasonably small period of time, just what is average or normal is difficult to determine.   You have to tread very carefully.

RAFTING

RAFTING

The term “monkey” is used for some of the primates that live in both the Old World and the New World. “Monkey” does not include the prosimians (lemurs, sifakas, etc. of Madagascar) nor the apes. Inspector Clouseau was wrong when he said, in one of the Pink Panther movies, it was a “chimpanzee-type monkey.” Primates are divided, firstly into prosimians (basically lemurs, etc.) and simians (monkeys and apes). The simians themselves were divided into platyrrhine monkeys (New World) and catarrhines (Old World monkeys and the apes).  The Old and New World monkeys look almost identical and for many years it was believed that the primates evolved from a prosimian and very quickly divided into the platyrrhines and catarrhines, with the platyrrhines becoming geographically separated and surviving only in the New World. However more research, some fossils and a few dates indicated that they were very distantly related and that the ancestor was probably a prosimian rather than the first monkey.  There was also a lack of fossils from the Old World that shared traits common to both the platyrrhines and catarrhines and could be their last common ancestor. This raised the probability that the monkeys had different prosimian ancestors: one in the New World for the platyrrhines and another prosimian in the Old World for the catarrhines (and the apes). In some ways the platyrrhine monkeys may be considered to be “advanced” prosimians or not quite as evolved as catarrhine monkeys.  Currently they both are often referred to be “monkey grade:”  approximately equal levels of development just maybe not as closely related as they would be if they shared a common ancestor.

In general the public does not know that the prosimians first appeared in North America.  The fossil Purgatorius was found in eastern Montana around Purgatory Hill east of the Fort Peck Reservoir.  It is dated to 66 million years ago, one to one and half million years before the end of the dinosaurs.  It is either the earliest known prosimian or a proto-prosimian that gave rise to prosimians. Many more fossils that are definitely prosimian a have been found in the American southwest and in Wyoming (I, myself, have participated in searching for, and finding, prosimian fossils in the Bridger Formation south of Fort Bridger, Wyoming).

Prosimians no longer exist in North America or Europe.  The first fossil prosimian fossil (Notharctus) was found in France. There are some living prosimians (Lorises, Pottos, Galagos also known as Bush Babies, and Tarsiers) in Africa and Asia, but the greatest numbers and diversity exist in Madagascar.

It seems that the prosimians first evolved in North America, diversified and spread to Europe, Asia, Africa and Madagascar.  The world 60 million years ago did not look like the world of today. it was much warmer for starters. For instance,Wyoming was covered by lush forests with large rivers and active volcanoes.  The North Atlantic was narrower particularly across Greenland to Europe.  Notharctus has been found in both France and Wyoming. The South Atlantic, also was much narrower than it is now.  The Isthmus of Panama was open ocean, the Pacific and Atlantic were connected.  North and South America were separate land  masses and were until about 3 million years ago.

Since there is no evidence, currently, of fossil prosimians in South America, and platyrrhine monkeys and catarrhine monkeys are:   1) either related to a common prosimian ancestor or two different prosimian ancestors, both living in Africa where only the catarrhines survived with only the platyrrhines spreading to South America, or   2) the platyrrhines evolved from an America prosimian before they became extinct  and the catarrhines from a European or African prosimian.  In either case the problem is how did the platyrrhine monkeys get to South America.  If they evolved on 2 separate continents (North America and Africa) then the platyrrhines (or their prosimian ancestor) island-hopped across the future Caribbean to South America.  Since there are monkey on some of the islands, it was most likely not a prosimian ancestor. Or if it was, it went extinct and the recently evolved platyrrhine monkeys spread back across the islands.

The most intriguing possibility, which may be the currently preferred option, is that they both evolved in Africa and the a platyrrhine ancestor rafted across the South Atlantic, survived the crossing and flourished in the New World while their African relatives went extinct. Probably due to competition with the catarrhines.

How this could have occurred has intrigued me for years.  I had to understand how it might be possible for me to accept that such a possibility might possibly be possible. I have come up with what I believe is a possible scenario, possible enough to have happened.  You may have noticed the multiple use of “possible” and “probable.”  I want you to understand that this only a scenario of what is possible to have a chance of happening.  The entire question of how organisms have come to inhabit oceanic islands is a fascinating topic in itself.  The Galapagos Islands are 1000 kilometers from Ecuador, have never been connected to any continental  land mass and one of the creatures that live on the islands is a marine iguana.  Every other known iguana is terrestrial, they live on land, feed on terrestrial vegetation, insects and animals, and although capable of swimming across rivers and from island to island, do not dive underwater and feed on seaweeds.

Anyhow here, for your consideration (as Rod Serling said at the beginning of The Twilight Zone) is a story of one way monkeys might have made the oceanic crossing (it might even be true):  The rain had fallen for days. Storm after storm sweeping in off the ocean. The river was a turbulent, muddy brown torrent with leaves, limbs, and trees floating on its foaming surface. Today though, it hadn’t yet rained but as evening approached the great dark clouds unleashed the storm they had been promising all day. Amidst the bolts of lightning and crashing thunder, the rain fell in drenching sheets.

The small troop of primates cowered under the canopy of leaves, close to the trunk of the tree they had been feeding in when the storm broke. The tree was near the center of their home range, where they felt the most secure. They had been here or nearby during the storms, feeling safer here than elsewhere.

However it was a false security for the tree grew on the bank of the river, which now surged around its roots, digging away at the earth the supported it. The troop first felt the impending disaster as an increasing vibration of the tree, then a lurch as the ground began to rapidly give way. The lurch only made them cling tighter to big limbs near the trunk where they had taken shelter, and when the tree crashed into the river only two of them were swept away.

The swollen river carried the tree and the band the few miles downstream to the coast. Even though the storm surf was crashing onshore, the river had enough strength to push the tree beyond the mouth and offshore, where the oceanic current began to move it northward along the coast.

The tree and its living cargo was still in the current’s embrace a day later when the current began its westward turn to become an equatorial current and cross the ocean. The ocean was not as wide then as it is now. The current sweeping up the west African coast could carry a floating object to the northeastern coast of South America in 10-14 days time. Dehydration was the biggest threat to the primate troop afloat on the ocean. The tree’s leaves and fruit would provide some water to meet their needs, as well as food to stave off their hunger. The leaves also provided shelter from the tropical sun. Clinging to the branches of the tree as it floated, the primates had little to do. There was nowhere to go, no predators to flee, and what food there was was in easy reach. Their activity levels were greatly reduces, even the juveniles and infants were subdued by the strangeness of their situation. This reduced activity reduced their water and food requirements further.

Still, the survivors were desperate when the tree finally grounded in the shallow water off a strange coast several weeks later. The oldest members of the band had died first, lacking the resources and strength to survive long. Neither did the younger juvenile members, they lacked the body mass to store fat and water to survive lean times. Nursing infants survived better until their mother, who had a greater need for water and food to produce milk for them, either died or failed to produce milk. Then they died. It was the young adults and the mature adults that had the stamina and bodily resources that had the best chance of surviving the trip. Still, they were desperate when the tree grounded. Desperate enough to leap into the gentle surf and get ashore. Get ashore to an unknown territory with unknown dangers. It wasn’t that they knew it was a new world, just that it wasn’t their own territory and who knew what other band of primates they might have to fight with or where there were safe places to take refuge from any predators.

There were predators here, ones they had never encountered before, but their predator avoidance/escape behavior worked here as well as in Africa.

However they never did discover other primate troops, neither of their own kind nor of any other kind. They were the only primates on the entire continent, in the entire hemisphere.

The surviving members of the troop floundered ashore, found water, safe haven, and food. As they recovered from their ordeal they would begin to explore their new home, finding sources for water, new foods, and new dangers. After a few years of learning the new territory their numbers would have begun to increase. The troop would have grown slowly in numbers, then grow too large to be a single troop and divide into two troops. Then their numbers would have started to increase faster, spreading into far territory, exploring newer habitats and life ways.

Their only serious competition would have been themselves. They were the founding members of all New World monkeys. Their descendants spread through tropical America, radiating into numerous different niches and species from the lemur-like marmosets and tamarins, to the monkey-like squirrel monkey and capuchins, to the world’s only nocturnal higher primate—the owl monkey, and to the more ape-like spider monkeys

They retained the third premolar of the prosimians and the “platyrrhine” nose (the nostrils face to the side of the nose, among other traits. Some of their descendants evolved the prehensile tail. Soon after the forced separation, before they themselves radiated and became monkeys and apes, their relatives in Africa lost the third premolar and evolved nostrils that opened forward (the “catarrhine” nose).

HELP! I’M HAVING AN ALIEN’S BABY! ALIEN LIFE: PROBLEMS OF SCIENCE FICTION, OR THE UNLIKELIHOOD OF MR. SPOCK

HELP!  I’M HAVING AN ALIEN’S BABY!

ALIEN LIFE: PROBLEMS OF SCIENCE FICTION,

OR THE UNLIKELIHOOD OF MR. SPOCK

I always liked Mr. Spock. I don’t know how much of it, if any, had to do with his physical resemblance to Barnaby, a host of a local children’s show of my youth, who also had pointy ears. Spock’s pointy ears are probably the most remembered of his alien traits. Trekkies will also remember his greenish hue due to his copper-based blood, his seven hearts, his extra human-strength and preference for heat.

None of these character traits is implausible.  Basically all of them can be found among creatures currently alive on earth.  Many mollusks and arthropods have hemocyanin which uses copper to transport oxygen (and turns blue when oxygenated).  Earthworms have five hearts. Grasshoppers have six “hearts,” and many insects have a large general heart and a series of smaller accessory hearts at the bases of their wings and legs. Hemoglobin (our iron-based oxygen-transporting pigment) is capable of being dissolved in cells (rather than just plasma like hemocyanin) and therefore more oxygen can be carried and capacity increased, which is a decided advantage for large animals.

The only thing improbable about Mr. Spock is not his pointed ears, green blood, or seven hearts, is his very existence, not as a Vulcan but as a Vulcan/Earth cross. I’m not arguing that “Vulcans” (representing extraterrestrial life) do not or cannot exist but rather that any extraterrestrial life form could breed (produce viable life let alone one that could survive to maturity) with any earth life form is extremely unlikely, unlikely to the point of impossibility. Given their separate origin and individual evolutionary history, even forms so “similar” as Vulcans and earthlings, it is so unlikely that they are physically compatible. The similarities are not even skin deep.

Issac Asimov wrote, in something I read, that no matter where the extraterrestrial being came from in science fiction stories it was always after the shapely blond, as if Euro-America’s standards of beauty are universal, really universe-wide. Even in the movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the creature was attracted to the female co-star. However there is much more involved with reproduction than mutual attraction.

Life on Earth is based on carbon and uses DNA to direct cellular activity and to transmit information to the next generation. Carbon-based life is not the only way for life. Theoretically there could be other “life systems” based on different atoms (silicon for instance, as in one Star Trek episode). Carbon is a very versatile chemical, capable of forming many compounds. Water is a nearly universal solvent, with some important properties of its own that make it essential for life. Carbon-based chemistry, organic chemistry, has many properties (energy released by reactions, temperatures at which they occur, etc.) that make it more efficient, more practicable than a chemistry based on some other atom. Carbon is also reasonably abundant in the universe. Although non-carbon-based life is possible I feel that the advantages of carbon (mixed, as in our case, with water) are so great that the vast majority of life forms in the Universe are carbon-based, require water and, maybe, use DNA. Proteins are complex molecules that take complex forms, some can exist in two forms, mirror images of each other. They can be differentiated by the direction that they rotate polarized light,1 either to left or right. If you mix up a batch of one of the proteins that can exist in mirror image forms in a test tube, you get a mixture that is one half levorotary and one half dextrorotary. On Earth all optically active chemicals made by organic processes are levorotary. It is a 50/50 chance probability that an alien life form might use only dextrorotary proteins. The two different forms of the same molecule are not compatible, they cannot be interchanged one for the other.

However, even if alien life forms use DNA (with the same sugar/phosphate backbone with the same four nitrogenous bases (cytosine, thymine, adenine, and guanine) that doesn’t mean they can successfully reproduce with any other life form. Information in DNA is organized in genes, the genes are collected in “strings” called chromosomes. The chromosomes exist in pairs, each cell contains a certain number of the pairs. The “certain number” depends on the species, and varies from species to species. Humans have 22 pairs plus a mismatched “pair:” the X and Y chromosomes that determine sex  XX for female and XY for male), a “diploid number” of 46. The great apes have 48 (24 pairs), baboons, mangabeys, and macaques have 42, others (talapoin, guenon, and patas) have between 48 and 72 (36 pairs). The variation in number is even greater among the rest of life here on Earth.

Sexual reproduction begins with the formation of sex cells (gametes, eggs and sperm). By the process of meiosis, the chromosomes in a cell are divided between the daughter cells so that each has one half of each pair (in humans 23 of 46 chromosomes). During fertilization, two gametes combine and each chromosome “lines up” with its coresponding one from the other gamete forming one chromosome and then they replicate to produce a pair. The new cell again has two of each pair of chromosomes. Development then proceeds according to the “instructions” contained in the DNA. If the half pairs are not a reasonable match they fail to replicate and the fertilization also fails to continue.

We’ll just ignore the question of whether it is even physically possible for two alien species to actually mate. Their genitalia may be so different as to be incompatible. External physical similarity does not ensure that the genitalia are similar (there are species of insects that look identical to other species but their genitalia are different enough, like keys to locks, to prevent cross-breeding).  Similarity certainly does not ensure that gestation is similar or that the chromosome number is the same, the genes are organized in the same manner, or even “spelled” the same.

There are so many places where incompatible differences can occur that it is not surprising that animals so similar, sharing a long common ancestry like horses and donkeys, after a relatively short separation, cannot produce fertile offspring. What is the possibility that two species with no common ancestry, with totally separate evolutionary histories (billions of years long), are cross-fertile? Not very likely, but I still enjoy Star Trek.

The first time I saw the movie Alien I had shiver of recognition. Aficionados of the movie (and its sequels) may know and etymologists should have recognized the same thing I saw. The alien’s reproductive cycle was not invented by the writer(s). It was borrowed from natural history here on Earth.

There is a group of species known as tarantula hawks or digger wasps, among other names. Tarantula hawks are actually a species of wasps, the females of which hunt and capture tarantulas to provide a source of food for their larvae. When a female is about to lay a fertilized egg, she digs a burrow and then goes looking for a spider. When she finds an appropriate spider, she attacks it, stinging it in a particular spot so it is paralyzed and not killed. Still alive, but immobile and capable of living for a long while, the wasp drags the spider into the burrow. Here she lays the egg in or on the paralyzed spider, then she covers the burrow and leaves. The larva is on its own.

After a few days, the egg hatches, the larva emerges and begins to feed, on the spider. The larva eats the spider in such a way that the spider remains alive (the freshness of the food apparently being very important) until the larva is nearly finished eating and growing. The vital organs are the last to be eaten and once the spider is consumed the larva pupates and transforms itself into an adult wasp and emerges from the burrow.

In the movie Alien, some giant life form from outer space attacks some humans at a remote outpost. They are, in someway, immobilized and implanted with one of the alien’s offspring. The humans are alive until the alien child bursts out of their chest cavity, a scene graphically and repeatedly shown in the movies.

This may make a great plot for a sci-fi movie, however there are some things that make it an unlikely event in the real world. My objections fall into two categories either of which would make the success of the event so unlikely as to be practically impossible. First, the behavior of the wasps (and presumably the “alien”) is instinctive and not readily adaptable to a different host species, and secondly, a vertebrate like a human is unlikely to survive a sufficient length of time while being eaten to provide a suitable nursery. Vertebrate bodies are different in fundamental ways from invertebrates and less tolerant to being “abused.”

Digger wasp and tarantula hawk behavior is instinctive. They do not learn which spider or caterpillar to use or where to sting it to paralyze it. The larva is not taught how to eat the insect so that it doesn’t die until the last moment. The larva “knows” because it is in its genes. Instinctive behavior is not flexible. A tarantula hawk will not substitute a caterpillar if it finds one first rather than a tarantula. Each species of wasp preys on a particular insect. It has to find the right prey to “release” the behavior. The larva is programmed to eat its living food in a particular way, eat the food insect the wrong way and it may die too soon. If it dies too soon the larva may not complete its development and fail to survive to adulthood.

Evolution/natural selection is capable of some amazing things. It is within the realm of possibility that an organism could evolve the ability to successfully attack and subdue unknown alien species. That the larva would know what and how to do what they need to with an alien body is even more unlikely, but theoretically possible. The real problem (to me) is that humans would make a poor choice as a host in the first place.

I was taught “three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food.” In a disaster situation remembering this would help me prioritized needs, etc. Breathable air in sufficient volume was more important than water to drink. You had several days to find drinkable water. The same way for a medical emergency, setting a broken arm of a victim who wasn’t breathing was useless. You had to get them breathing first before anything else.

Human anatomy and physiology are very different from spiders. We are “hot-blooded” and need a lot of energy from food to stay alive, without it we die relatively quickly. Shrews will starve to death in hours. We need a lot of oxygen to help burn the fuel so our heart and lungs operate to transfer oxygen from the air to our blood and then throughout the body. Our circulation system also removes “waste products,” carrying them to our kidneys for removal. Water keeps the blood liquid, helps metabolize protein, fills our cells, etc.

Spiders are “cold-blooded,” they use very little energy when not active, their requirements for food, oxygen, and water are greatly reduced. Oxygen is passively transported by trachea (hollow tubes) and not actually pumped. With the hard exoskeleton, and not respirating, water loss is greatly reduced.

A human, bound and immobile, will die in days. You start destroying parts of the body and death will come sooner. The heart, lungs, brain, and kidneys are critical, maybe the liver too. It is true that you can do a lot of damage to the human body without killing the person, if you know what you’re doing. You have to prevent excessive blood loss and collapse of the system, “shock.” Perhaps, in a fashion, the human body is much more “integrated” than the spider’s. Damage to a part of the body can impair the functioning of other parts (including vital organs). Otherwise minor injury can lead to shock and death. Blood loss, reduction in volume leading to inadequate pressure, is a major factor in shock. I don’t see how a larva could eat a human in such a way that would not cause continuous bleeding and concomitant loss of blood pressure that,no matter how slow the bleeding would cause death within days. Long before the larva is big enough to fill our chest cavity (having eaten our heart,lungs, kidneys, etc.). Puncture an artery and death will quickly follow.

While it is in the realm of possibility, a very remote possibility, that some alien life form could use us in a way similar to the way tarantula hawks use tarantulas, I’m not going to worry about it. It is far more likely an alien life form would use for dinner. They might, like spiders, inject a “poison” that would kill us and dissolve our insides so they can suck the juice out. That is what I would worry about.

Even here on Earth you cannot just substitute one species for another and have things continue on as before.

I was in Africa for the first time years ago, just when AIDS was really becoming a big concern for the majority of the population. I was traveling with my parents. My father, who was a doctor, was asked by one of the other people on the tour, if it was possible to get AIDS, actually HIV, from mosquitos. The fear was that since mosquitos transmit malaria, a blood-born disease, couldn’t they also transmit HIV, another blood-born disease. My father said no, it was extremely unlikely. I had a “gut-feeling” that he was right, it was years later while I was reviewing malaria and its life cycle (or “their” life cycles, since there are four species of malaria plasmodia) that I figured out why he was right to not be concerned that HIV would be transmittable by mosquito.

Malaria is caused by a protozoa, not by a virus. There are mosquito transmitted viruses (e.g. yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile, equine encephalitises, etc.) so it is possible for a virus to be transmitted by mosquitos (“vector”). However it is a complex system that requires several parts to be properly coordinated. IT is not as simple as substituting HIV for malaria, or yellow fever. While we do not for certain how HIV spreads in nature, we do know that it spreads directly human-to-human by direct contact with infected bodily fluids. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, etc. do not naturally spread human-to-human. We can do it artificially with blood transfusions. Malaria must pass through a mosquito before it can infect a human. It is not like a mosquito bites an infected human, sucks up some blood, then goes bites another human and the contaminated proboscis? (“needle”) infects the new human, or even that some of the blood from the first human is injected. In is more complex than that.

When a female Anopheles mosquito bites (only female mosquitos bite) an infected human, the blood with the Plasmodium sporozoite (the asexual spore of the malaria protozoa) is stored in the mosquito’s stomach. The blood is digested to provide enough protein to produce eggs. The conditions of being in the mosquito’s stomach cause the malaria to undergo sexual reproduction. The zygote exits the stomach, produce new spores which migrate to the mosquito’s salivary glands. Here they wait. This all takes some time, during which the mosquito, assuming she survives, lays the eggs and then goes looking for another blood meal to produce another cluster of eggs. When she bites, a small amount of saliva is injected. It prevents blood clotting and later causes the itching, an allergic reaction to the foreign protein. Along with the saliva is the malaria spore. If the organism bitten by a malaria-infected mosquito is a human or maybe another primate, the malaria spore will begin reproducing, asexually, and be ready to infect another mosquito. If an infected mosquito bites anything other than a primate, the transmission is broken.

Mosquito-born diseases are not spread because some blood is removed from one infected human and injected into another. No blood is transferred, the disease agent has to “infect” the mosquito and get into the salivary glands before it can reenter a human’s blood stream to cause another infection. Just because a disease is carried in blood does not automatically mean it can be transmitted by mosquito bites. It’s simply not that simple.

1The proper terms are: levorotary—rotation of the plane of polarized light to the left, that is counter-clockwise, and dextrorotary—rotation of the plane of polarized light to the right, that is clockwise.

KINDS OF CREATIONISTS

 

KINDS OF CREATIONISTS

…As always, the battle is not simply one of fact and truth. It is rather a struggle for the hearts and souls of people, with deep implications for the ways in which we live our lives and regulate our conduct. It is a religious or metaphysical battle, not simply a dispute about scientific theory.

Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, 2005:261

For the past few years I was becoming more and more convinced that discussing, arguing with Creationists about evolution wasn’t going to accomplish anything. The argument was not about facts, Creationists and Darwinians were talking about different things. Darwinians were talking about the reality of evolution, the scientific evidence for it. Creationists were talking about God and the Bible as a guide to a way of life. Both sides were talking past each other, neither able to convince the other side.

Recently I read the above quotation. Ruse summed up the situation succinctly: it is not about science but about how we live and how we justify it. I also realized that I was not the only one who saw this. Having said that I will deal with Creationism as if it were a science, knowing that it is probably futile. You can believe in Creationism if that is what you want, just don’t tell me it is supported by scientific facts, etc.

Some scientists will tell you that it is a waste of time, time they do not have, to rebut Creationists and pseudoscientists.1 A large factor in this reasoning is that no matter how completely you destroy their arguments, expose their false facts, bad logic, misquotes, and outright lies, they will come right back the next day with the same stupid arguments. In fact if you look back at the arguments the Catastrophists used 175, 200 years, or more ago and compare them with some of the Creationist’s arguments of today, they haven’t changed. They were wrong then and, with the greater knowledge we have today, even more wrong now.

In that respect those scientists are right, it is a waste of time. I have no real expectation of putting an end to any pseudoscience. I do have some hope that a few of the people who think that there might be “something” to the claims of one or more of the pseudosciences (esp. Creationism) will see them for what they are. What I do hope to accomplish is to use Creationism as an example of what are not science and to show how they differ from science. At the risk of being accused of a “straw man argument,” there are a number of variations on creationism (and some do not exactly make their claims explicit) that somebody is sure to claim I used an unfair model, I will try to compare and contrast pseudoscience and science. Creationism as a science is simply bad science.2 Some Creationists (the Young-Earth Creationists3) seem to avoid science all together, ignore it and simply argue on the basis of the Bible being literally true. In a way I have no argument with them, for there is no common basis. It is theology and not science. They make no claim to be scientific or even to explain scientific facts. My concern here is with those who accept the facts, try to explain them within the framework of the Bible, and claim to be scientific.

For a long time I gave the Creationists the benefit of doubt. I was willing to believe that people are basically honest and trustworthy, that they simply did not understand evolutionary theory, did not know many of the facts, or did not fully comprehend the breath and depth of the evidence. I was a junior in college when I came across a small book from the Jehovah’s Witness about evolution. At the time I had a rather limited knowledge of evolutionary theory. Even with that limited and superficial understanding, as I read through the book I could see that the author(s) had no understanding at all. That the author, or authors, were deliberately confusing the issues, falsifying ideas, and failing to understand the theory did not cross my mind. I can no longer believe that, at least not of the leaders. Maybe their followers had accepted what they have been told by the proponents of Creationism, believing that their leaders are honest (after all they are Christians). They do not have the necessary background knowledge to evaluate the claims of Creationism or to understand how they have been mislead and given a very biased, unbalanced, and distorted version. I can no longer accept that their leaders are simply and honestly mistaken. I have come to the opinion that their leaders deliberately distort the real facts, cover them up, and ignore them. They are aware of what they are doing and continue to violate the trust of their followers and take advantage of their trust and lack of knowledge. They deliberately deceive and manipulate their followers.

It is hard for me to write this post, to write it without anger and rage, because what Creationists do is, to me, one of the worst things a scientist can do. Supposedly these are the same people who believe that lying is a sin.

The debate between evolution and creation is not a scientific debate. True, there are criticisms of evolution (more properly-natural selection). Some of them are scientifically valid and discussion of them should be part of a scientific curriculum.

However, the debate between evolution and creation is a between science and religion, and therefore belongs in a theology or philosophy class. I would prefer to not talk about creationism but I cannot. I will use it to illustrate other points of view, styles of thinking, and how science differs.

In a way there is not much to argue scientifically about with creationism. There is little science in it. One critic complained that their arguments “often involved logic, a stubborn denial of the evidence, a shallow understanding, or reckless disregard for truth.”4 Another criticized the “Creation-scientists appallingly unprofessional research methods.”5 Scientists usually maintain a certain decorum in public so comments like these, and these aren’t the only ones, are indicative of a much greater depth of feeling.

Creation science denies a lot of the established scientific facts, their hypotheses are untestable (not just there aren’t testable hypotheses, see below, they just avoid them), and they try to prove that they are right rather than try to find out whether they are true. (As I read it pointed out: “As Christian, we know …”, rather than the more scientific approach of “As Christians, we hypothesize …”). Perhaps their biggest failure as scientists, is that they rarely admit to errors and never change their basic hypotheses. Scientists have to be willing to accept that everything they believe could be wrong and to change their ideas. Evolution, continental drift, quantum mechanics are all examples where scientists accepted new ideas (“paradigms”) that overthrew their earlier beliefs and ideas. Creationists may claim that they accept the possibility that their hypotheses may be wrong and would change. But they are only paying lip service. To them the Bible (at least their interpretation of it) is True, absolute truth with a capital “T.” Everything must be made to fit a biblical interpretation, no matter how tortured the logic or how much evidence has to be denied. Their arguments are little more than modernized versions of what the Catastrophists argued 200 years ago.

I came across an argument by the Creationists that implied evolution could not be true because the evolutionists disagreed among themselves. Many of these disagreements are over the details of evolution, not evolution itself, although some of the disagreements are of major importance. I recall coming across the figure of 27,000 as the number of different Christian sects, not churches but sects. Twenty-seven thousand different ideas about Christianity, different enough to form a separate group. Talk about not being able to agree.

The Creationists, themselves do not agree about all the details, and even major aspects of creation. They do seem to downplay their differences. Rather than there being a sharp division between evolution and creationism, there is a continuum between the two, as is there a continuum within creationism. At the extreme end of creationism area those who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Some believe in a stricter interpretation than others, the strictest are the Flat Earthers. Yes there are still people in the United States that believe that the Earth is flat, a flat disk. The Bible says so and that supersedes anything science says or personal observation implies.

Not quite as strict in interpretation are those who still believe in a geocentric solar system. The Earth is a sphere around which the moon, planets, a stars rotates. Their view and that of the Flat Earthers are similar to the ancient Hebrews and others before Copernicus. Of course they both believe that God created the Universe, plants, animals, and man in six days about 6000 years ago.

When people speak of Creationists they, primarily are talking about either Young Earth Creationism (YEC) or Old Earth Creationism (OEC). In both cases God created everything, nothing evolved. They both believe in a heliocentric universe. The difference between two being how much time elapsed. The YEC’s believe that the Earth is 6000-10,000 years old, maybe 15,000 at most. OEC’s believe that the Earth may be billions of years old but man is a recent creation about 6000 years ago.6

However even the OECs are divided about how God created the world, everything in it, and how long it took. There are Gap Creationists who believe there is a temporal gap between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 when God destroyed the world and then much later re-created it. There are Day-Age Creationists who believe that the Biblical day is some unspecified age of thousands or millions of years. Then there are Progressive Creationists who accept more of modern science and believe that God created progressively more advanced kinds of animals and plants over along time.

Intelligent Design Creationists  (ID) can fall into one of several of the previous categories. They can believe in a Young Earth or an Old Earth. They seem to be basically willing to allow evolution but an evolution closely directed by God, even to the point that He created the appropriate mutations, etc. to create the “impossibly” impossible collections of necessary mutations for the intelligent designs.

There are also Evolutionary Creationists (EC) who seem to believe that there was evolution but God directed it to bring about the world as He planned it. And there seem to be two kinds of EC’s: the ECs who believe that God was continuously and actively involved in every detail and the Theistic Evolutionists (TE) who believe that God just started it all and it unfolds according to the laws of nature without His intervention. He may or may not have designed the laws to yield the results He wanted. TE is the view of mainline Protestants and also the Catholic Church. Evolution happened, man did evolve from apes, but God at some point, perhaps 6000-10,000 years ago, infused man with an immortal soul.

If Creationists are going to imply that not being able to agree is a mark of being wrong, that evolution cannot be right because evolutionists disagree among themselves, they should look to themselves. They are at least as bad.

1 Since the main topic of this blog is evolution, and Creationists claim they are the opposite of evolution, I will concentrate on Creationism. Creation Science claims to be a science and since they violate science’s norms, calling them pseudoscientists is appropriate.

2 … In speaking of bad science, I am rather referring to ideas and theories which, driven by underlying metaphysical commitments, simply violated or ignored all standard methods of good science.—Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, 2005:34

3 Of course, the denial of the scientific data by the Young-Earth Creationists means the extreme of obscurantism, but their position, however absurd, is fully consistent and hence logically unassailable. p 181

4 Tim M. Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1990:125-126.

5 Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel, 2000:219.

6 The dates range from John Lightfoot’s, a 17th century Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, 9:00am on September 17, 3928bc to the Archbishop Ussher’s (circa 1650) 9:00am (or 12:00pm), Sunday October 23, 4004bc (or March 23, 4004bc). The Bishop Ussher, whose chronology is commonly used, dated Creation at 3/23/4004bc or 10/23/4004bc. Martin Luther dated it at 3960bc. The Jewish traditional date is 3761bc. Noah’s Flood has a range of dates of 2348 to 2105bc. The Mosaic chronology also calculates Noah’s Flood as beginning November 18, 2319bc.

“KINDS”

“KINDS”

The Bible (probably an English translation, like the King James’) uses the word “kind,” as in Noah took two of each kind into the Ark. At least this is the English translation of a Hebrew word and Creationists have used this word as some sort of synonym for species. Creationists claim that God1 created each kind of organism and each is fixed and immutable. One kind does not evolve into another kind, this seems to be the closest to a definition that you can get. Some Creationists have accepted that some evolution does (or did) occur. They will accept that a small bit of change can occur (something like what evolutionists call microevolution) within a “kind” so that each kind may more perfectly fit its environment. God, or the Designer, has permitted this variability for the benefit of His/Its creation.

However, one kind still cannot evolve into a different kind (what some evolutionists think of as macroevolution). This is where things get confusing, Creationists never clearly define “kind,” beyond one kind cannot evolve into another kind. This is unlike scientists who do try to define “species” and are constantly discussing it, and use it fairly consistently. You cannot test their claim that “kinds” do not evolve into another kind because they do not define the term or use it in a consistent manner from which one can construct a definition. The only consistent thing seems to be that humans are one “kind” and apes are another.

“Kind” does seem to be used as a synonym for species and a kind can evolve enough to be called a subspecies. But if you start discussing real life examples (e.g. Darwin’s finches, lions and tigers, horses and zebras) maybe “kind” is not species but genus which can change enough to be a new species within a the genus. The genus Equus evolved into Equus caballus, E. burchelli, E. zebra, and E. asinus, etc.). Or maybe it is a family like the Felidae, the cat family. Felines include at least 37 species in four genera.2

Kind is used in a relative way: relative to how much evolutionary change has to be accepted, the “kind” expands or contracts so that no matter how much change there is it is only within the confines of a “kind,” never one “kind” evolving into another “kind.” With the proviso I mentioned above that apes are always a different kind than humans, who are always a separate “kind” from all other organisms. Even if the “kind” is a family level (i.e. cats/Felidae) and includes as much or more difference as in the Ponginae family—the apes—gibbons, siamangs, orangutans, gorillas, bonobo, chimpanzees, and (to some scientists) man. Others prefer to put the orangutans, gorillas, bonobo, and chimpanzees, in Homininae, with man. And of course. there all those fossil species.  Kind is used in a rather amorphous way that prevents it being of any use, except to avoid being pinned to a single concept that is indefensible without admitting to there being evolution.

1 Intelligent Design proponents and Creation Scientists claims that a “designer” created each kind. But “designer” is a linguistic subterfuge to avoid be called a religion based theory. But make no mistake they are talking about God: a Christian, Biblical God.

2 Felis—the small cats: wild cats, domestic cat, lynx, bobcat, puma, caracul, etc.; Neofilis—the clouded leopard; Panthera—the big cats: snow leopard, tiger, leopard, lion, and jaguar; and Acinonyx—the cheetah. Then there are the extinct cats: the saber-tooth Smilodon, Machairodus , Homotherium Megantereon, etc.

C14 AND SCIENTIFIC ILLITERACY

I was watching a movie and at the beginning of there is group of people and they find a piece of gold jewelry of some very ancient design. (It was relevant to the was that it looked to be very old but it actually wasn’t.) I have forgotten which movie it was so I cannot remember what the story was about. About all I can really recall about it was the gold was dated by radiocarbon (C14). One of the characters came in and told the rest that the C14 date was some rather recent date, like 1862 or something that recent and that precise.

This is about all I can remember of the movie-the remarkably precise C14 date and that it was on a piece of gold jewelry.

Over the years of studying human fossils I have dealt with dates on these fossils, studied dating methods, and, as an archaeologist, sent samples in for dating (C14). I have theoretical and practical experience with dating methods and this part of that movie just leapt out at me. The writers and/or director either didn’t know, didn’t care, or didn’t believe that the viewers would know or care, they just needed some way for the characters to know that the gold piece was recently made so that the plot could advance. They had heard that “C14” was used by scientists to determine the ages of old things, so they decided to use it. They didn’t research what “C14” was or if they did, didn’t care. You cannot use radiocarbon to date gold. Gold is made of gold, radiocarbon requires carbon and no just any carbon, but carbon isotopes (radiocarbon and carbon) that had been once in a living organism. And there is always a margin of error with the calculate dates that is part of the date.

Note:  When I first became aware of carbon dating it was written as C14.   In the years since then, for reasons I do not know, it was decided that it should written 14C. I know that as written above it is not scientifically correct. I’ll just use the old style here out of nostalgia.

HALF-LIVES AND PENNIES

HALF-LIVES AND PENNIES

I have had trouble with the concept of radioactive half-life. It seemed to me that the more of the radioactive isotope you had the faster it decayed. If I had a kilogram of some radioactive element with a half-life of one hour, half a kilogram would decay in that hour. If I had five kilograms, 2½ kilograms would decay in that same hour. How did the radioactive isotope “know” there was more and more “needed” to decay?

If I had five 1 kilogram piles, widely separated, a half kilogram of each would decay in the first hour which would be a total of 2½ kilograms for the overall total. Of course that is only the first hour, for the second hour a quarter kilogram would decay. Intellectually I could understand the concept and deal with it. However I had trouble getting a “feel” for it, to visualize it. Until yesterday anyway.

Half-life of a radioisotope means that there is a 50-50 chance that any one atom will decay at some point within that period of time. It either decays or it doesn’t. If it decays it is “removed.” If it doesn’t decay then there is a 50-50 chance at some point within the next interval of time.

Suppose you have 1000 pennies and you flip each one of them once. There is a 50-50 chance of a heads. So you will probably have 500 heads and 500 tails. If you say that each penny represents one radioisotopic atom, heads equals “decay,” tails “not decayed,” and you define a “half-life” as one day. That is once each day you toss the coins to see if it “decays,” comes up heads or not. If the coin is heads you remove it (spend it or whatever) and keep only the coins that were tails for the next day when you repeat the trial over again, you will have an analogy to the radioactive decay process.

Starting with 1000 pennies, at the end of the first day, the first half-life, you would have 500 pennies. After the second day you will have 250, all the ones that came up tails both tosses. The coins do not “remember” what happened on any previous toss. The results of each toss is independent of the earlier ones and independent of the results of the other coins.

You remove the heads and only toss the ones that have again come up tails. The odds never change, but each “half-life” fewer coins (“radioisotopes”) come up heads (“decay”). Eventually you will wind up with one coin that hasn’t yet come up heads (if you start with 1024 coins, to make it work out in whole numbers, it will be the 10th half-life, ten consecutive times that coin has come up tails, 210=1:1024). Start with 1,060,176 and 20 half-lives you will have one left (2>20=1:1,060,176). That’s the odds that a particular coin picked at the beginning will be the one left. The coin you pick will most likely not be the last one left, but one will and it will still be a 50-50 chance that it will come up tails.

PROBABILITY


PROBABILITY

Though some have taken this tiny probability as an argument for “creation science,” the only thing it clearly indicates is that monkeys seldom write great plays.

John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy, p. 75

CHANCE

Statistically, no matter how complex a sequence may be, given enough time, random chance selection of the elements can create/evolve the complex sequence. As an example used to illustrate this concept it has been said that a thousand monkeys banging on a thousand typewriters, given enough time will eventually “write” Shakespeare, the “tiny probability” referred above.   The sequence usually in question is the DNA sequence in chromosomes, the random chance, mutation.

So what is the chance that a monkey randomly tapping keys on a typewriter would “write” Hamlet? Actually the odds are rather easy to calculate. If X equals the number of symbols (letters, spaces, and punctuation) on the keyboard that may be randomly chosen and Y equals that number of symbols/characters make up Hamlet, then assuming each symbol has an equal chance of being chosen, XY equals the number of possible combinations, one of which is Hamlet. (Sorry about the use of scientific notation but it is the only way to deal with the large numbers. XY is like 22 which means 2×2=4, 10 to any power is simply 10 followed by that number of zeros,  109 equals 1,000,000,000 or 1 billion.) For X, I came up with 48 as a rough estimate of the number of characters (74 if you want to worry about capitalization), what you might include or not include, may change the count, raising or lowering the number a few one way or another. For our purpose here 48 is good enough, 45 or 50 will change the end result by a large amount but it won’t really matter in the end. How many characters are there in Hamlet, 50,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000? We’re talking characters (letters, numbers, punctuation, and the spaces between them) not words. A 100,000 characters could be 15,000 or 20,000 words. Hamlet has about 250,000 words (the Bible about 850,000). If the average word has five letters, then Hamlet has maybe 1,250,000 letters plus punctuation. Just for argument’s sake let’s use 1,500,000 characters for Y, so XY=481,500,000. This is a really big number, I mean really big. I saw somewhere the number possible combinations the four nucleic acids that make up DNA could form in human chromosomes, the number exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. This number is certainly greater. A lot of monkeys banging on a lot of typewriters would (theoretically, in all probability) write Hamlet1 but eternity will probably come to an end before it happened.

This is supposed to convince or reassure people that evolution is true? What it does show is that most people don’t really comprehend evolution, natural selection, or random mutation. They fixate on the random part and ignore the rest. The only thing random in evolution is what mutation occurs and when it occurs. Selection for or against a particular gene/mutation is not random.

A more accurate analogy using monkeys banging on typewriters would be a monkey randomly typing a sequence of symbols on a computer keyboard. When the number of symbols equals the length of the Shakespeare’s play, the computer compares the random sequence to the target sequence (Hamlet in our example), the ones that match, the computer “keeps” (positive selection), the ones that don’t match are deleted (selected against) and replaced by new randomly selected symbols. Statistically with 48 symbols and 250,000 characters (“chances”), random “mutation” will be right 1 in 48 times, the first time should produce 5208 correct symbols. The computer repeatedly compares the randomly typed symbols to the target sequence (equivalent to a generation), selecting the ones that match and replacing the ones that don’t until the entire sequence is correct. In this analogy probability is not XY but XY (X times Y, X=48 and Y=1,500,000). XY is a much smaller number (much smaller) than XY. That is, it would take only about 72,000,000 cycles, analogous to generations, to write Hamlet, starting from nothing.

But even this analogy isn’t realistic, “evolution” didn’t start with a long random sequence, selecting those that matched some “target” and replacing only those that don’t match. We’re talking about the evolution of a living, functioning organism, the sequence has to make some sense and it starts with a working sequence.

I don’t want to get into a long, detailed discussion of the origin of life from non-living chemicals and trust me, a detailed discussion would be long. All known living organisms are complex. They are all cellular in form, with their life substances and processes concentrated within a container separated from and protected from the outside world. We have trouble conceiving of a life form that isn’t contained in a cell. In the world today the conditions are such that the chemicals needed to sustain or start life are quickly consumed by any one of a number of living organisms and can never accumulate in such numbers or concentration (the “primordial soup”) to provide the conditions for the spontaneous generation of life.

In theory, a short chain of nucleic acids (these acids can form naturally under conditions of the early Earth and will form short chains of RNA or DNA) can replicate itself in a solution containing nucleic acids. Any sequence that also alters its environment in a way that increases its ability to replicate itself will do so faster than other sequences and it will continue to replicate automatically. We have here an evolutionary system that works by natural selection. It may not yet be “life” but it exists, reproduces, and competes against others.

There is, in round numbers, about 1,000,000,000 years between the formation of the Earth and the earliest known evidence of living cells (life as we know it). One billion years for the molecules of nucleic acids to naturally form, collect in short chains, only one of which had to replicate faster than natural processes destroyed it. This is all that is needed to start life.

So a more accurate analogy would start with a short sequence that is “sensible,” say the word “Hamlet.” At each “generation” there would be produced a large number of copies, each one would have a small chance of containing a mutation. The mutation could be a substitution of one or several symbols for one of the existing ones, duplication of one or more of the symbols or part of the sequence. Deletion of symbols or parts of the sequence is also an allowable mutation.

The copies are “checked” for accuracy or sensibility. Those copies which are accurate or sensible are selected for and used to produce another generation of copies. The non-sensible copies are selected against and eliminated. Sensible means only that the copy forms words or sentences, not necessarily that it means something that makes sense, such as: “To be or not to be, that is the question”. “Be or not be?” would be sensible.

At the first generation: Hamlet (an accurate copy), ham omelet, hamomelet, Hamlets, even spam omelet (which makes no sense) are “sensible” copies, but for example Z?Hamlet is not “sensible.” Each generation produces more copies, the accurate or sensible copies going on to reproduce there own copies or altered versions.

You should be able to see that very quickly there would be large numbers of sequences, many different sequences some very weird and wondrous. All these sequences would go on replicating, mutating, evolving and one will eventually become Hamlet, also the biological equivalents to War and Peace or The Cat in the Hat. Chance would play a big role in the actual evolutionary path followed and the actual results. I almost said “end results,” but there is no end. If you started it over from the beginning, even using the same sequence to start, you would still get entirely different results, functional but different. It would be like getting “Spamlet, Quince of Markland.” What results from a change is contingent to what preceded it. Stephen Jay Gould has written about the role of history in evolution and how improbable any one exact result (i.e. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) is. Yes, someone will win the lottery, that is certain but the likelihood, the probability, that it will be you (one precise outcome) is less than a monkey writing Hamlet. “Something” had to evolve that, it is “us” is very unlikely. So “who” didn’t evolve? Someone has to win, odds are it will be someone else and not you.

Probability is not well understood by most people. You are far more likely to get in a car accident than win the lottery. I mean someone, actually a lot of “someones,” will be killed in car accidents for everyone who wins the lottery. However we still drive and buy lottery ticket, thinking we have a real chance of winning, all the time ignoring the very real chance of being killed driving, and the very real chance of losing the lottery.

I found the odds of winning the Powerball lottery on a CBS news broadcast (8/22/01). The estimated odds of winning are 1:80,000,0002. No one won the 8/22/01 drawing, four tickets won the next drawing but the man who bought $6,000 worth of tickets wasn’t one of them. The odds of winning the McDonald’s Monopoly game are estimated at 1:440,000,000. The odds of winning the “Big Money Lottery” is 1;76,000,000. CBS reported (8/20/01) that the chance of being injured on an amusement park roller coaster ride is 1:23,000,000 and there are 300,000,000 visitors each years. The odds of being injured enough to visit a hospital by an amusement park ride is 1:10,000,000. The Discovery Channel stated that the odds of being struck by lightening are 1:600,000 (months later on a newscast I heard the odds of being killed by lightening were 1:3,000,000). If you really think that you can win the lottery, don’t go out in the rain or go swimming in shark-infested water.

ODDS AND AVOGADRO’S NUMBER

If everyone understood probability,

Las Vegas and the lotteries would be out of business.

What does it mean to say that the odds of life spontaneously occurring are 1:100,000,000,000,000 (1×1015 or 1 in 100 trillion or 100 million million3)? Just for the sake of discussion, we’ll start with this number, we can change it later. When we say that the chance of a coin, being flipped, coming up heads is 1:2, we mean that if you flip a coin it is as likely to be “heads” as it is “tails” for that one flip. Flip it again and the chance is still 1:2. If the chance of winning a particular lottery is 1:10,000,000 and the lottery is repeated each week and you get a ticket each week. The chance of one of those tickets winning in 50 weeks is 50:10,000,000 (1:200,000). If you buy a ticket for 5,000,000 weeks (96,153 years and 10½ months) you have a 1:2 chance of having won. The chances are per event. If the lottery was twice a day

motor vehicle accident

1:500

fire

1:800

passenger aircraft crash4

1:20,000

flood

1:30,000

tornado

1:60,000

venomous bite or sting

1:100,000

meteorite

1:3000 to 1:250,000

fireworks accident

1:1,000,000

food poisoning

1:3,000,000

from Chapman, Clark R., and David Morrison 1989

Cosmic Catastrophes, Plenum Press, New York.

Table 1. Odds (in the US) of dying from various causes.

it would take only 6849 years and 4 months for 5,000,000 events. If you played once a second it would be 10,000,000 seconds, 115.74 days, to reach a 1:1 probability (virtual certainty) of winning (actually not 1:1 since the same number can be drawn again and maybe you chose a different number each time).

So if the chance of life spontaneously forming is 1×1015 for each event what does that mean? Is the formation of the Earth one event or are we talking about the chance encounter of various atoms and molecules in some “primordial soup” of chemicals where each event is an encounter between any two or more atoms and/or molecules?

There is a number I learned in 11th grade chemistry: 6.023×1023.   Actually I couldn’t remember the correct number any more so I had to look it up (the Internet is good for some things). (It annoys me that I couldn’t remember it.) Anyway this is the number of atoms or molecules in a quantity of matter of that atom or molecule equal, in grams, to the combined atomic weight of the atom or molecule (AKA gram molecular weight or a mole). This number is known as Avogadro’s Number. Carbon has an atomic weight of 12, so 12 grams of pure carbon has 6.023×1023 atoms of carbon. Water (H2O) has an atomic weight of 18 (16 for oxygen and 2 for the hydrogen). Eighteen grams of water is one mole of water and has 6.023×1023 molecules. That’s about eight teaspoons, 18 cubic centimeters, a 2 × 3 × 3 centimeter cube, about one cubic inch give or take a few trillion molecules. A small quantity of matter contains a very large number of atoms and/or molecules, all interacting on a molecular scale. If each of these is one event, how many are occurring each second? If you think about an explosion (either a chemical like TNT or nuclear fission like an atomic bomb) trillion × trillions of “events” occur in a fraction of a second. But life proceeds at a slower pace. For the sake of a discussion lets say one atom/molecule interacts with another atom/molecule once every second. Furthermore, conditions on Earth were only able to support life beginning four billion years ago (a half a billion years after the formation of the Earth). How many events would that atom/molecule have been in after half a billion years? How about 157,781,680,000,000,000 events (1.59×1017) so a 1:1×1015 chance event has 1.59×102 or 159 chances of having occurred, not 1:159 but 159:1, not extremely rare, or rare but certain. A 1:1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 in a trillion trillion, 1×1024) has a 1:1,000,000,000 chance of occurring, better chances than you have of winning some lotteries. That’s just for one atom or molecule.

Fortunately we do not need to consider all the atoms in the Universe or even all on Earth. We don’t even have to consider all the atoms/molecules in the ocean; we only need to consider the atoms/molecules in the “primordial soup,” some small pocket(s) of nutrient rich broth in a small and protected spot. It would not be a pure sample of any one atom/molecule. It would be a mixture of atoms and molecules in various numbers and it would not be possible to calculate what a mole of it would weight, or even necessary to. A mole of water is eighteen grams. Some of the simpler molecules could have moles of several 100 grams, a soup composed of several dozen molecules plus atoms, and each atom and molecule was present in a small percent of Avogadro’s number (½% is 3.0115×1020 not 3.0115×1023) might weight several 10,000 grams (several 10s of kilograms, 22s of pounds). We could have 7.5×1021 atoms/molecules in a few gallons of soup, the number of events (interactions) could be on the order of 3.75×1021 per second, a trillion trillion events in less than 2,666 seconds, that’s less than 45 minutes (3.75×1021×1.59×1017=5.96×1037). Very improbable events occurring frequently over extremely long periods of time are not unlikely, they are certain.

These “calculations” (estimates) require that all interactions be random and have an equal probability, which they don’t. Some reactions are more likely to occur, some will increase in likelihood as earlier interactions provide precursor molecules, etc. What we would start with is a broth of atoms and simple molecules (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, CO2, H2O), build up to slightly more complex molecules (ammonia, etc., see the Urey-Miller experiment). Then even more complex molecules (simple proteins). It started with a few atoms, increases in number of atoms, then molecules, then the more you have the more you get and in geometric fashion the chain reaction accelerates, more reactions breeds more and more complex results, more often. The spontaneous evolution of life is not a “miracle” needing divine intervention. Once conditions on Earth reached the appropriate state, life was bound to evolve, given enough time, a few hundred million or half a billion years is enough.

The calculations of the microscopically small chance of a spontaneous origin of life are based on the chance that a protein or amino acid will be created by the random meeting of a number (10s to 100s) of atoms, all combinations having an equal probability. Amino acids combine to form proteins and there can be 50 to 50,000 amino acids in a single protein molecule.

Glycine is the simplest amino acid. Glycine has an amino group NH2, a carboxyl group (COOH), and two hydrogen atoms attached to a carbon. More complex amino acids may have seven amino groups, a second carboxyl group, a carbon ring, sulfur, more nitrogen, hydrogen, and/or carbon. These can form rather readily as the Urey-Miller experiment demonstrated. It is claimed that proteins that are more difficult, or are they? Proteins may be composed of 100s of atoms, but those atoms are grouped into amino acids. Proteins do not have to form from random collections of atoms, their building blocks are amino acids. Once they are formed, proteins are very, very probable.

Any discussion of the probability of the spontaneous occurrence of life is pointless. I only discussed it to show that the really minuscule chances are countered by the sheer number of “events.” Besides there is a large difference between “extremely improbable” and “not-at-all probable”. Creationists have abused probability. They assume, unstated, that all events are equally probable, independent of each event, and (biggest of all) it all happened in a single step. We really have not got enough information, or facts, to calculate the probability of life with any degree of accuracy or meaning. Extremely low probability is not the same as impossible. Extremely low probability may often be an indication that we lack enough relevant data to accurately calculate the probability of the event occurring. Besides, even if life appearing in this form is extremely improbable that doesn’t actually say much about the probability of life occurring in any form.

If you bought one ticket in a lottery where the chance of winning is 1:80,000,000. It would be very improbable that you bought the winning ticket. The odds that anybody else bought the winning ticket are the same. The odds of a specific, single ticket being a winner is 1:80,000,000, every last one of them has the same chance of winning. Also the same chance of losing: 79,999,999:80,000,000. Yet nobody is surprised that a ticket wins. Nobody claims that God was necessary for a winning number to occur. The odds that there would be a winning number was 1:1 (well actually not because not all numbers may be issued and some numbers are issued more than once). I have seen the figure of 37% as the number of lotteries in which the winning number was issued on a ticket. This is why some of the lotteries rise to such large payouts, nobody won for several drawings. So the saying: “Somebody has to win,” is actually; “If they repeat it enough somebody will eventually win.” But for the sake of argument we will assume that for this lottery the winning number is drawn from those tickets sold. Nobody is surprised that there was a winning ticket. The probability of your ticket winning is 1:80,000,000. The probability of any winning ticket is 80,000,000:80,000,000 (1:1). “But,” you say, “there is a difference between the chance of a winning ticket being drawn and the chance that the winning ticket being your ticket.” Yes there is and when Creationists calculate the probability of the spontaneous emergence of life, what they are calculating is the is the spontaneous emergence of this particular life (the chances of your ticket winning or as with the monkeys: Hamlet the Prince of Denmark) and not the chances of the spontaneous emergence of any life (the chances of there being a winning ticket: Hamlet the Prince of Denmark or Spamlet the Quince of Markland). They equate (without making it clear) that the chances of having a winning ticket are the same as the chance there is a winning ticket. The odds are not the same and to say that the odds that life spontaneously emerged in this exact form are so low as to be impossible and to require divine assistance is irrelevant to the whole question.5

Here’s a couple of quick probabilities: We know of one inhabitable planet, Earth. Life exists on it so the probabilities of life are 1:1. Or, there are 9 known planets, one has life so the odds are 1:9. Of course not all planets are inhabitable6 so maybe there is one solar system we know about and there is life in it, so again 1:1 odds. Of course its all ridiculous and not relevant. We don’t know enough to calculate the odds.

I know about Drake’s Equation (N=R*fonoflfifc•L, N=the probable number of technological civilizations at any one time with intelligent life forms that are capable of space exploration). There are no numbers just seven unknown quantities which if we known we could calculate the answer. It is not the same as the number of planets with life forms. The answer is at least one (us here on Earth) and could be as high as billions, given the number of stars in the Galaxy, let alone the Universe. There are billions of galaxies with billions of stars with, probably, planets.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

Time and again it is pointed out that something is impossible to have happened because of the hugely astronomical odds against it happening (e.g. the spontaneous origin of life). Well the odds against you existing (the “you” meaning the specific, exact sequence of DNA, genes, various alleles of those genes, etc.) are so astronomically improbable that, by such reasoning, you cannot possibly exist, neither you, I, nor the six billion plus other humans.

Each of us is a precise combination of genes that, except for an exact twin, is unique in the entire world. No other human, living or dead or yet to be born, has the exact same genes. I am not going to calculate the actual odds of any exact combination occurring, I will provide some indication of the probable range of probability.

First, each individual is the result of a single act of conception: the combination of genetic material from one particular egg and one particular sperm. Each egg and sperm is the product of meiosis. During meiosis the DNA in a cell is divided in half so that the gamete that is formed has one-half of the normal genetic material to match with one-half of the genetic material from the other parent, thus providing the fertilized zygote with the proper amount of DNA.

During the meiotic division the chromosomes assort and randomly divide into halves. The two halves of each chromosome do not automatically go with the same halves of all the other chromosomes. Humans have 23 “pairs” of chromosomes (22 pairs and either two X or an X and Y chromosome. The number possible combinations of just the chromosomes is 223, with two parents that makes 223 × 223 possible combinations, that is 246. But chromosomes do more than randomly re-assort during meiosis, for example they also exchange parts of their genetic material with other chromosomes, invert sections, and mutate. These various actions function to re-assort genes on the chromosomes themselves. Over time the genes can be nearly as randomly sorted as the chromosomes they are on.

I have seen estimates that the human body may have 30,000 genes. These are active genes, not the inactive, unexpressed “junk” that forms the majority of our DNA. (We have millions and millions of base pairs of DNA.) Each gene can exist in different versions: alleles. The major blood type (the ABO system) has three alleles (A, B, and O), there is also the Rhesus Factor (Rh- and Rh+), the Duffy system, MNS, Kell, Diego, Lutheran, and sickle-cell anemia. However these are more different genes than allelic variants of the ABO system. So rather than each gamete having a one of 223 possible combinations, the number might be closer (assuming two alleles for each gene and only calculating the active genes, not including the junk DNA) a 230,000 combinations, or for a fertilized zygote: 260,000. However, what are the chances that your parents are the two that they are. With about six billion people now living, theoretically your parents could have been any two of these six billion. Assuming a 50:50 sex ratio that is 23,000,000 possible parental pairs, each a different gene combination, one of 230,000 possibilities. That’s 23,000,000 × 230,000=23,030,000 possible gene sequences at fertilization. All the dead, living, and yet to be born humans have hardly exhausted the possible combinations.

Realistically there is not an equal chance that anyone human will have children with any other human of the opposite sex or that each child will have different parents. Parents have to meet before they can mate, so they generally have grown up near each other (and share similar genes) and they have more than one child. This reduces the odds some. Not much and if we add in the junk DNA and possible mutation events (and how can those be accurately figured in?) the possibility of any one particular combination occurring goes up astronomically.

This is why I’m not calculating the probability, I can’t do the math and I’m not sure anyone else can, at least, not calculate a realistic number. All that really matters is that the probability is really, really, hugely improbable. You, my reader, are the improbably improbable result, you, me, and six billion other people and the hundreds of new babies being born each minute (or is it thousands each second?).

Impossibly improbable? Yet it happens repeatedly. Perhaps you are thinking that I have done something wrong in estimating the probability. Maybe I have been sneaky or underhanded. Well, yes and no. I have tried to honestly calculate the probability. And yes I have been sneaky. The probability was for someone to be born with a single exact DNA sequence, yours for instance, not the chances that someone would be born with any DNA sequence, that probability is one, it will happen. People buy lottery tickets (not me), because someone will win, it could be them, but it mostly won’t. The problem is one of the probability of an exact result specified in advance versus the probability of any result.

The probability of the spontaneous origin of life as we know it may be extremely unlikely but that may not be the same as the probability of the spontaneous origin of any form of life.

The calculations of the probability of life spontaneously occurring have one thing in common, besides their highly improbable probability: they all assume it is life as we know it here on Earth. This is a specified outcome, a “special event,” identical to what are the odds of a specified number (generally the number bought in the lottery) will win the lottery, also improbably low. However, the odds of there being a winning number are high (because not all numbers are bought and not all tickets may have unique numbers, the actual odds of there being a winning ticket are about 37%, based on actual lottery practice and experience). We know that life, as we know it, did emerge here on Earth, so in one sense, discussing its probability that life emerged here on Earth is the life that emerged here on Earth. What is the probability of that what is is what is?

On the other hand, what really is being argued is not what is the probability that life spontaneously emerged but what is the probability that any form of life will emerge any where in the Universe? That is an entirely different probability, more likely the probability of there being a winning lottery number.

There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, each with billions of stars, some fraction of them have planets and potentially have life-friendly conditions. Some fraction of billions times hundreds of billions is a large number, so the odds aren’t that long.

It was Mark Twain7 who said that there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Probability is a type of statistic. You need to be very certain what you are talking about. You are dealing with very large numbers of events multiplied by very long time frames that can make any probability factor meaningless, even if you have got the problem right in the first place.

1  “…Selection does not demand one particular predetermined play, and that the best ever written. In evolution there is no already-decided end point. Any play, written or not, will do — an appalling farce, for instance — and all it has to be is better than any rival. To think otherwise is to show, truly that you do not know what you are talking about. Worse, it is to show that you do not know what evolutionists are talking about.” —Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously

2 I have also seen that the odds of getting bitten by a shark are 1:80,000,000.

3 Calculations of the spontaneous generation of life are usually about the generation of a protein. Proteins are made of a number of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids in organic proteins. If there are N number of amino acids in a protein, there are N20 ways of arranging those amino acids, hence the probability of it spontaneously forming are 1:N20. Proteins are mostly enzymes and what matters is their shape and different proteins can have the same shape (at least where it matters) and this fact will increase the chances of the “right” protein forming.

4 I have a figure that the odds of being injured as an airline passenger is 1:2,000,000 which doesn’t make sense that you are 100 times more likely to die than be injured which is far more likely, especially since I have also heard that 19 out of 20 people in airplane accidents survive. I think there must be a typo or other error in the figures.

5This is your BAI, Basic Argument from Improbability, this was coined by Jason Rosenhouse a mathematician.

6 I hope the Creationists are saying God created life only on earth and nowhere else. The Bible says so. During the Middle Ages it was argued that there was life elsewhere, a lot of life. God’s omnipotence required that He create numerous worlds.

7 He attributed it to Benjamin Disreali, a British Prime Minister, however no one has found it anywhere in Disreali’s writing or known remarks. It does seems likely that Mark Twain is the original source of the quote.