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 plot 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 not 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 calculated date 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.

GEOLOGIC TIMESCALE

GEOLOGIC TIMESCALE

 

It should be noted that neither Cuvier or Smith was an evolutionist, and the and the principles of relative dating do not require evolutionary theory as part of the framework.                                          —Bruce MacFadden 1992:123

When geologists and paleontologists talk about the age or time of fossils or rock formations, they use words use words like Pliocene, Upper Pleistocene, Devonian or Jurassic.  This can be really annoying.  I mean what is a Pliocene?  Jurassic has something to do with dinosaurs (actually T. rex was Cretaceous). That is unless you are like me. These words have a meaning to me, like how long ago and for how long of a time.  Pliocene and Pleistocene are periods of time the geologists and paleontologists use. If you understand something of the meaning this blog will be more understandable to you. So we need to talk about how geologists and paleontologists measure time and name it. Geologists use two different time scales:  relative and absolute.  I am going to discuss relative time here.  Absolute time, and how it is determined, will be the subject of another post.

We measure time by clock and calendar. Minutes and hours make up days and days form weeks, months and years. We’re all familiar with this system and generally number our years based on the date of the birth of Jesus (the A.D., anno Domini, and B.C., before Christ, that are sometimes used with the year number). But there are other ways of numbering years. The Muslims use the date of the Hegira (July 16 622) as the year one. Other cultures have used other methods, e.g. the years since the accession of king, emperor, or pharaoh. There has been a trend to recognize the Christian bias of the common numbering system and use C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era).

Whichever year numbering system is used, they only work for events we have a record of and can determine how many calendar years have elapsed between them and now. (The calculation of the year Jesus was born was wrong so the Christian calendar is off by several years). Even at that, records may be inexact and no precise determination can be made. Then we have “dates” for events like: “in the 11th century B.C.” or “sometime before 960 A.D.” For prehistory (by definition before the written record) we have no way of measuring time by consulting a clock or calendar. We must use other means of determining time.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you use two forms of time: absolute and relative. An absolute date is one like your birth date or the Battle of Hastings on Saturday October 14, 1066 A.D. (or C.E. if you prefer). The Magna Carta was signed after the Norman Conquest because the date of the signing is after 1066, and if you look up the date (June 15, 1215) you can figure out just how many years elapsed between the two events (149 years). An absolute date can be considered as a date fixed in time at a precise point. It is possible to determine how many years (or minutes or hours if the time is figures that precisely) have passed since the event occurred.

Relative time is not a date or time interval that is known with exactitude. Before, after, long ago, recently, or short time before are terms that may be used to describe when an event occurred or how much time has elapsed relative to some other event of date. The Magna Carta was signed after the Norman Conquest. A long time elapsed between the building of the pyramids and the landing on the moon; and Columbus rediscovered the Americas between the two events. Relative time does not use calendar dates. Without knowing when William the Conqueror invaded England or when King John signed the Magna Carta we can determine the chronological sequence of the two events simply by knowing that King John was a descendant of William the Conqueror. Anything King John did must be later in time than anything William did. However we don’t know how long after,even if we know how many generations are between the two (William was the great-grandfather of John). You can estimate how much time might have elapsed between the two, but you won’t know exactly how much time or be sure how accurate the estimate is. We use relative time a lot, as in: “it was late last summer before Labor Day.”

If you looked at the rocks, particularly if they formed a cliff, you would notice the the rocks at the bottom had to have been present before the rocks above were deposited and therefore the lower rocks had to be older.passage of time. The sequence of rocks represented the passage of time, just how much time they had no idea.   Some thought that each strata of rock was the result of a single depositional event, say a flood, and might represent a few days or months. Others thought that the strata represented continuous small-scale deposition over hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of years.

When they examined the fossils contained in the rocks they discovered the fossils of animals, mostly unknown in the present world. Using the sequence of fossils, “index fossils,” and the stratigraphic sequence of rocks, geologists were able to correlate rocks across Europe and eventually most of the world. Without knowing how old a rock was or how long it took to deposit the rock (how much time the thickness of the rock represented) they could say that one rock strata in one place was the same age as, older than, or younger than the rock strata in another place. The rock units represented an interval of time and they could determine the relative age of the units.

As the science of geology developed in the last half of the 18th century and early 19th century, geologists developed a time scale.  People realized that the same type of rocks did not always underlie the soil at the surface every where. different rocks were often exposed in different places.  One of the first attempts to explain why there were different rocks and why they changed depending on their location in the rock column was based on the story of Genesis in the Christian Bible.  It was proposed that the rocks had settled out of the primordial ocean, probably on the third day when God created dry land.  The hypothesis was that the rocks had been deposited in the order of their density, heavy rock like basalt and granite had been first, followed by others such as limestone, sandstone, shale, etc.  This scheme did not last long as it became obvious that in places sandstone and shales were inter-bedded in multiple repeating sequences.  The rock types which should have been deposited all over the earth at the same time, in the same sequence, were in fact in deposited in different order in different places.  In France, there was even an area where basalt, which should have been at the bottom of all the rocks, was on top and even looked like it had flowed across the land and even filled existing river valleys. The rock strata indicated that the rocks had formed and been deposited in some other fashion.

Several schemes were developed to organize the rock sequences and the time the represented, so that geologists could hold intelligent discussions that didn’t bog down over describing time in cumbersome terms (e.g. Formation X is about as old as Formation Q and both are older, really, really older than Formation J but not as old as Formation Z). Stratigraphic sequences, chosen from areas where they were well defined and with distinctive fossils, were used as “type formations” to represent a specific time interval. Most of these were given a name generally based on a Latinized name for the region or former inhabitants of the area: the Cambrian from Cambria, the Latin name for Wales,  Devonian for Devonshire, England, Silurian for the Siluries, an ancient Celtic tribe, or Permian for the Perm Mountains in Russia. So, now all you needed to say was that Formation X was early Devonian and everyone could figure out how old it was relative to all the other formations.GSA Geologic Time Scale

The largest geologic time unit is the Era, Eras are divided into Periods, and Periods into Epochs. There four Eras. The Eras are divided into from two (the Cenozoic Era) to five Periods (the Paleozoic Era). The Periods are the commonly used time units except in the Cenozoic Era where the Epochs (seven) are the commonly used time units.  Almost all fossils of mammals occurred within the Cenozoic, so much so that it is also called the Age of Mammals. The appearance of humans occurred in the Cenozoic, actually very near the end and extending into the following Quaternary and Holocene.

Attempts were made to estimate how much time was actually represented by the rocks and how old they were. Figures of 10, 15, or 50 million years were put forth. But it wasn’t until the discovery of radioactivity and radioisotopes that the guess work was replaced by more concrete data and absolute dates could be calculated for the relative time units. I will discuss some aspects of radioisotope dating in a further post on absolute dating methods, but for now, all that matters here is that the radioisotope dates confirmed the sequences determined by both the stratagraphic position and fossil correlations.

Because fossils were used to correlate rock units and to determine the relative age of the units, only those rock units that contained fossils could be dated. The age of non-fossiliferous rocks could only be estimated based on what fossiliferous rocks they were above, below, or between. Underneath all the fossiliferous rocks were entire stratigraphic sequences of rocks which had no fossils because they were believed to have been deposited before there was life on earth (at least before there were life forms with hard parts that would fossilize). These strata (often known as basement rocks) represented an unknown amount of time and, it was believed, vast amount of time (since the Cambrian rocks that overlaid these basement rocks were believed to be the oldest rocks fossiliferous rocks, the rocks below them were called Precambrian).

You may have noticed, although more likely you didn’t, that I have never mentioned the word “evolution ” or “evolved.”  Nothing that I have talked about here requires that there be evolution and as mentioned in the epigraph at the beginning of this post, the early practitioners of relative dating did not believe in evolution.  In fact, relative dating does not even require that fossils be the petrified remains of once living organisms (animal or plant). Only that most fossils have restricted range in time.  They appear in some rocks for a time, disappear, being replaced by other fossils and do not reappear again. I qualified this statement to say most fossils because there are some organisms that have appeared in the fossil record, then disappeared, only to be discovered alive and well.  The coelacanth fish is an example.  These organisms are often called “living fossil.”  The horseshoe crab is another.

 

 

THE TAUNG CHILD: AN IMPLICATION OF ITS AGE

THE TAUNG CHILD:

AN IMPLICATION OF ITS AGE

By Patrick Light

I spend much time outdoors, not as much time as I would like to spend, and maybe not as much time as some people think I do, but still, more time than most people do. On several occasions I have looked at the equipment I carry with me, what little I sometimes need to live comfortably enough in the woods, and I have thought how little it is that we actually need. How simple it can be to satisfy our basic needs. I have also realized how bound we are to these things, how necessary these things and the knowledge of their manufacture and use are for human survival. This is the difference between us and the other living organisms on this earth.

Several years ago, I listened one day, as an excited gradu­ate student told nearly everyone who would listen about an article he had read. The article explained that recent studies had shown the Taung skull to be that of a three year old child, not that of a six year old child as it is usually considered to be. The original estimate that it was six years old is based on the dental development of the skull compared to standard human development rates. The study mentioned in the article had determined, by microscopic examination of its teeth, that the Taung child was three years of age at the time of its death. It is possible to determine the actual time required for various teeth to form and grow by counting lines formed in the teeth (the perikymata). The article’s conclusion was that the Taung child (and by inference all of the australopithecines) had physically developed, matured, at a much faster rate than do modern humans. The rate of development was, in fact, identical to that of the apes.

The graduate student was quite excited and, it seem to me, disturbed, about the “pongid pattern” of growth and development exhibited by the Taung skull. I have never been quite sure what the graduate student had found so exciting or disturbing. He may have feared that, because of this pongid pattern of growth, the australopithecines would be removed from the evolutionary line leading to Homo sapiens, like poor old Ramapithecus. The idea being that if they developed like pongids, then they must be pongids and not hominids.

I did not find the information particularly exciting, or disturbing. The australopithecines did not have a large brain, so why should they be expected to have an extended, a slower, more human, pattern of growth and development? That the bipedal Taung child was only three years old, but developmentally equal to a human child at six years, further demonstrates the mosaic nature of evolution. It was only later, primarily while writing my thesis, that the full implication of this pongid pattern of growth became apparent to me.

The old concept of the Great Chain of Being still affects how we reconstruct evolutionary scenarios, how we visualize evolution. The concept is based on the obsolete idea that each organism, living and extinct, occupies a point along a single line leading from the most primitive to the most advanced, just like links in a chain. Progression from one species to another is gradual and even, where large gaps exist between living species, the “missing links” are species that are now extinct. In a sense, the metaphor is an accurate description. Each living individual, each of the species can trace an unbroken chain of ancestors back across billions of years to a primordial organism that was the first living organism.

The problem with this concept of a chain develops when a gap needs to be filled in. What did that missing link look like? If the gap is small and there is only one link missing, one inter­mediate step, the missing organism is reconstructed with charac­teristics halfway between the two known species. If the gap is a large one and there is more than one link, the reconstructed species show a shift from primitive to advanced characters proportional to the species position between the two known species. If the reconstructed species is 1/4th of the way from the primitive to the advanced species, its traits are 3/4ths primitive and 1/4th advanced. If it is half way, it is one half primitive and one half advanced. A species 7/8ths of the way toward the advanced species, is 7/8ths advanced and 1/8th primi­tive. This does not mean that 7/8ths of the traits are advanced, but that each trait is 7/8ths of the way toward the advanced state. You can see the results of this, using apes and humans as an example, in the older reconstructions of Neanderthal Man. Since he lies somewhere between the apes and modern man, he is an amalgam of characters both ape and human. In more recent ver­sions, he is placed still closer to being human, but still not quite so. He is slightly stooped, intellectually dull, and not fully capable of articulate speech. The australopithecines, are even closer to the apes and therefore were originally thought of as being almost apes. It has taken much evidence and even more argument to change this view. According to the Great Chain of Being Concept, they should have been only slightly bipedal, slightly tool-using, slightly large brained, slightly hairless and slightly articulate. But they are not, and now, we have gone to almost the opposite extreme. Some recent reconstructions make them into hairy, little humans, culturally and linguistically primitive to be sure, but, nonetheless, very human.

The Great Chain of Being was based on the concept of unili­neal evolution. The apes were not modern species that had evolved from some distant common ancestor with man, but they were that ancestor from which man evolved. They had not changed, had not evolved further, only man had. It was even a fashion for a time to place the various cultures and races of man along the chain, in positions ranging from just slightly above the apes, through various grades of primitive to civilized. Even though the unilineal concept of evolution has been replaced by a multi­lineal “tree of life” concept, the Great Chain of Being concept still affects many of our ideas about evolution.

Earlier I mentioned that, lately, we have gone almost to the opposite extreme in our reconstructions of the lifestyles of the australopithecines. The reconstructions make them are very human, more human, I believe, than the evidence warrants.

Apparently, all the australopithecines matured at a rate equal to the apes. This reduces the amount time available for the brain to grow and for the individual to learn. On the face of it, any reconstruction of australopithecine life that is much different from the apes, that postulates much dependence on tools, on an extended and dependent childhood is probably inac­curate. An australopithecine child was what we would call “extremely precocious.” This is not to say that they were exactly like apes. They were doing something different. They were using their brains in a way that the apes weren’t. Neurolo­gical changes were taking place in the brain, it was being reorganized. This reorganization would eventually make it possible for at least one population of australopithecines to become something else.

What I find most interesting is that there is evidence that Homo habilis had the same rate of development as the australopi­thecines. At first glance, that does not seem sensible. Homo habilis was larger brained than the australopithecines and used tools, even made tools. It would seem therefore, that they should have been developing at a slower rate than the australopi­thecines, much slower, more like Homo sapiens. Yet, I will venture to argue, it is reasonable, even to be expected.

Sherwood Washburn has said: “Changes in behavior occurs before changes in morphology.” The changes in the pelvis, the knee, and in the position of the foramen magnum did not occur to allow the hominid to walk bipedally. The changes occurred because of the bipedal behavior of the hominid. In Homo habilis, the behavior was changing, they were using tools more often, they were becoming dependent on tools, on culture (or symboling, if you prefer) for their survival. They were making behavioral changes, changes permitted by their present morphology. The changes created selective pressure for morphologic changes that improved the organism’s capacity for the new behavior. These morphologic changes allowed for further behavioral changes, which led to further morphologic adaptation, a self-reinforcing cycle. Homo habilis had embarked on a new adaptive trend, one different from the australopithecines, and one that had tremendous poten­tial. Each little shift toward greater ability to symbol gave such immense advantage over other populations that the selective pressure for those adaptations was great. Homo habilis didn’t have a chance. Homo habilis barely shows up in the fossil record before being replaced by descendent, Homo erectus, the culture-bearing animal.

The australopithecines lived like pongids, they were a little more intelligent, a little more capable of problem-solving than the apes. Homo habilis had begun to make changes in their behavior, they were tool-users and tool-makers. They were becoming dependent on culture, on the ability to symbol. The morphologic changes that distinguish man from ape were beginning to appear. However, it is with Homo erectus that the morphologic changes occur with full force. Homo sapiens is just the final polishing to these morphologic changes.

I am not surprised that the australopithecines and Homo habilis matured as rapidly as do the apes. They were only beginning to make those behavioral changes that would lead to Homo sapiens. The changes in morphology related to the extended childhood that is the hallmark of cultural man, would occur afterward, in Homo erectus.

REFERENCES

Beynon, A. D., and B. A. Wood

1987 Patterns and Rates of Enamel Growth in the Molar Teeth of Early Hominids. Nature 326:493-496.

Bromage, Timothy G.

1987 The Biological and Chronological Maturation of Early Hominids. Journal of Human Evolution 16:257-272.

Bromage, Timothy G., and M. Christopher Dean

1985 Re-evaluation of the Age at Death of Immature Fossil Hominids. Nature 317:525-527.

Brower, Bruce

1987 Hominid Headway. Science News 132:408-409.

Conroy, Glenn C., and Michael W. Vannier

1987 Dental Development of the Taung Skull from Computerized Tomography. Nature 329:625-627.

Smith, B. Holly

1986 Dental Development in Australopithecus and Early Homo. Nature 323:327-330.

Tobias, P. V.

1974 The Taung Skull Revisited. Natural History 83(10)38- 43.

“CATASTROPHIC” EVENTS IN A UNIFORMITARIAN WORLD

“CATASTROPHIC” EVENTS IN A

UNIFORMITARIAN WORLD

. . . The late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the study of the earth was first becoming a science, was a period marked by a long battle between catastrophists—who thought that sudden great events were crucial to the evolution of the planet—and uniformitarians—who explained all history in terms of gradual change. —Walter Alvarez and Frank Asaro1

[Evolutionists] hold that the present conformation and composition of the earth’s crust, the distribution of land and water, and the infinitely diversified forms of animals and plants which constitute its present population, are merely the final terms in a an immense series of changes which have been brought about, in the course of immeasurable time, by the operation of causes more or less similar to those which are at work at the present day.—Thomas Henry Huxley

The fundamental idea is that geological processes such as wind, flowing water, waves, and floods, worked in the past much like they do today.—Darwin Spearing2

… I have no objection to this interpretation; gradualism, after all, is not uniformity.Milford Wolpoff3

I live in Missoula, Montana. My house is on a hillside about 100 feet above the valley floor on the southwest edge of town. I can see the Clark’s Fork (of the Columbia) and Bitterroot Rivers. Before they built the houses behind me, I had a good view of the upper hillsides on the east edge of town. I could see the parallel lines that run across the slopes, especially in the spring when the snow had started to melt. The highest of the lines is about 1000 feet higher than my house. The “lines” are prehistoric beaches from Glacial Lake Missoula. The soil under the grass around my house is fine silt with numerous (and I do mean numerous) water-worn pebbles and cobbles left by the lake and the icebergs that floated on it. When I drive west of town on the interstate there is a road cut that exposes alternating deposits of lake bed deposits and river sediments, some 36 cycles of the lake filling and draining. I have also been across eastern Washington a number of times. I have seen the potholes, the Channeled Scablands, and the Dry Falls.  Glacial Lake Missoula formed about 10-15,000 years ago during the last glacial advance when a tongue of ice advanced from Canada and across the the Clark’s fork River at the future Idaho-Montana border. This ice dam backed water up into the valleys of western Montana forming a vast lake until the water either floated the ice up or flowed through cracks in the ice causing the ice dam to fail catastrophically, sending a huge flood of water rushing downstream through the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. After the flood the ice would advance and again block the river, repeating the cycle over again, multiple times over several thousand years. All around me is evidence of “non-normal” catastrophic geological events.

When Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology in three volumes beginning in 1830 he ended an ongoing debate between two schools of geologic thought. On the one side were the “Catastrophists” who believed that the earth was periodically torn by immense forces that completely altered the surface of the earth and destroyed all or nearly all life. Afterwards new life was created to repopulate the earth until the next catastrophic event. With each catastrophic destruction and subsequent creation, the earth and the life on it progressed to a more advanced state, i.e. more like the present earth and life forms. These periodic catastrophic events were caused, directed, and controlled by a supernatural force, (the Christian’s God). The Biblical Genesis and the Noachian Flood were merely the last of along series of catastrophic destructions and creations.

Opposing them were the “Uniformitarians.” Uniformitarians argued that all the changes shown in the geologic and fossil records are caused by forces generally similar to those observable today. All the change was due to those natural forces gradually working over immense periods of time. Lyell’s books pretty much ended the argument in favor of the Uniformitarians. (The argument still continues, Creation Science is still using the Catastrophist’s ideas and arguments).

Like so many things we humans do, Uniformitarians emphasized the “gradualism” and the lack of catastrophic events in their theory to separate and distinguish themselves from the Catastrophists. Over time this emphasis hardened into a belief that only the small, gradual forces we see today were at work. There were no catastrophic events allowed and nothing that even hinted at “catastrophic” (from a human perspective) would be considered to be possible. Even to the extent that large circular structures on earth that looked identical to meteor craters on the Moon were believed to have some other cause.

However “catastrophic” events have reappeared as possible geologic agents (e.g. the K-T impact). Uniformitarians have been accused of becoming Catastrophists (usually by Creationists who then claim that this “proves” they are right). There is, however, a vast difference between the catastrophes invoked by the Catastrophists and the catastrophes of the Uniformitarians.

Catastrophists argued that all change was caused by supernatural forces acting over a short period of time to completely recreate the world. These forces were not explainable by natural causes. In the sense that miracles4 can be defined as a violation of the laws of nature, these were miracles. There is not enough water on earth to flood the entire world. Even if all the ice in Greenland and Antarctica melted the earth would not be completely covered, most of the major cities of the world yes, but not the entire earth. Where the 40 days of rain came from and where it went to cannot be explained by natural causes. The causes of Noah’s Flood are in the realm of miracles. God, being omnipotent, is not constrained by natural law and can violate them when and how He desires.

Catastrophes of the Uniformitarians are not the miraculous, supernatural, and world-destroying events of the Catastrophists. They are natural events, the result of natural processes. Uniformitarianism is not exactly equal to gradualism either, if gradualism means small events occurring at low levels with small effects accumulating over long periods of time. Uniformitarianism is just using known natural processes which will vary in size and intensity to explain the geologic record.

“Catastrophes” are admissible cause in the uniformitarian theory, given enough time the improbable random event becomes statically certain. Where Catastrophists have gone astray (and Uniformitarians, too) is believing that since “nothing” happens that they can see that therefore “nothing” ever happens for millions of years. One day is like the next, the rivers still run in their beds, no deeper than before, the mountains are just as high as the day before, there are no volcanoes exploding, no seas encroaching on the land, or land rising out of the sea, therefore these events are not normal and never happen in the normal course of the aeons.

Catastrophists carry this to the point that there is no erosion, etc. at all until one day everything breaks loose: mountains are thrown up, or ground down, seas rush in or out, volcanoes erupt and earthquakes rip the earth. These catastrophic events continue for an undetermined length of time (very short though) then cease and tranquility and stability resumes for millions of more years in the altered landscape, static and unchanging.

Uniformitarians argue that all these forces are at work in the present time, but in increments so minute as to be barely noticeable in a human life time. That was the original concept. It has been altered some to say that generally the forces are very minor but that there are times that the magnitude is increased drastically. There are earthquakes constantly but most are never noticed except by seismographs. But then there are the occasional earthquakes that do cause noticeable alterations in the landscape. While this is catastrophic on the human scale it is but a minor twitch world-wide. Uniformitarianism does not rule out massive alterations in the world, it merely says that the forces used must be natural ones, maybe of a different order of magnitude to what we are accustomed to, but not “supernatural” forces. The Ice Ages are an excellent example of the differences. The reason has not yet been determined, there are a number of competing theories. A leading theory is that naturally occurring cyclical changes in the Earth’s tilt, precession of the equinox, and orbital eccentricity, caused a shift in either temperature and/or winter precipitation. The result was that a few more snowflakes fell each winter than melted each summer. The snow fields grew to glaciers and the glaciers into giant ice sheets, snowflake by snowflake. The Catastrophists argued that it just started snowing one day, for reasons we will never know, and it snowed and snowed, the temperatures dropped and stayed. The glaciers held the world in their icy grip and then suddenly it all reversed itself, the snow quit, the temperatures rose and the glaciers retreated, suddenly.

It’s not that Uniformitarians argue that catastrophes are impossible (at least, they shouldn’t) but that before you accept a “catastrophic event” as the cause of some observed fact you have to rule out all the other possible causes.

Comets or asteroids colliding with the earth area an acceptable natural event. They are present in space, their orbits do cross that of the earth’s. Therefore they must from time to time collide with the earth. Anyone who watches the night sky will tell you that it happens frequently each night. Mostly the meteorites are small because most of the particles in space are small; occasionally a bigger one enters the atmosphere, because some of the particles are bigger. There are some really big “particles” drifting about in space and to say that they never have and never will collide with the earth is ridiculous. Statistically in the 4.5 billion years of the earth’s existence some very large asteroids and comets must have hit the earth. There are the remains of several impact craters visible on the surface of the earth. Most likely they had no more effect than when Krakatoa or Mt. St. Helens exploded. But the possibility (indeed probability) exists that at least once an extremely large body, large enough to affect the entire world in a single “catastrophic” event did collide with this planet (the K-T or Cretaceous-Tertiary Event 65 million years ago). But all other possible “uniformitarian” causes have to be ruled out first.

All geologic events run from the small and every day garden-variety type to the extremely massive, “catastrophic,” once-in-blue moon event (2.5-3.5 quakes to 8.4+ quakes, daily “dirt particle” erosion to mass wasting). In our life time/written history we have seen some large events. Even larger events are quite possible, extremely unlikely in the time of a life span, but in geologic time quite probable.

It is a matter of scale—a 10-mile asteroid is “simply” a large and rare meteorite, asteroids exist is a graded series of sizes from “micro” to very, very large. Small is the most common size and therefore the size most likely to collide with the earth. The larger, and rarer, an asteroid is, the less likely a collision. Less likely, not impossible. These things exist and they vary in size,we are most familiar with the smallest (just watch the night sky). But big ones have occasionally struck the earth. We have the craters to prove it (oh sorry—impact structures).

It is a big step to say that the average time between major impacts is ≈26my and that since there is an average of ≈26my between extinction events that impacts cause extinctions. (Which came first? Did Raup statistically determine the probable average time between large impacts first (and if so what parameters did he use to define “large impact”) or did he figure an average between extinction events and adjust his parameters for impacts to get a similar answer?)

It is also a difference of first “opinion” as to the cause. Catastrophists find a “discontinuity” in the rock record and look for a catastrophic event to fit it. Uniformitarians find a “discontinuity” and look for a “common” event that could explain it, expanding the search to bigger and bigger events until one fits all the known facts. You start with the most common events that may explain the facts. If none of them quite fit, less common events are looked at. If none of these fit the known facts then the extremely rare and “catastrophic” events (all though still a “natural” event) become acceptable cause, if they fit the facts better than lesser events. Uniformitarians start “at the bottom” with the most common occurring events, working up to the “least disastrous” event that fits. Catastrophists start at the top and tend to see everything as caused by world-altering catastrophes, confusing the lack of observable change in their lifetime as evidence that “stasis” is static. They do not comprehend that all these small and nearly invisible daily/seasonal events accumulate over geologic time scales with tremendous effects and become the mass of the geologic record. The effects are “catastrophic” in accumulation but are unnoticed because of their very slow rate.

By way of example, if you go to Cody, Wyoming you can drive on west of town on the road up the North Fork of the Shoshone River (heading for Yellowstone N.P.). A few miles out of town you drive through a canyon, through several tunnels, past the Buffalo Bill Dam, and to where the canyon opens out to a wide valley. Just as you come out of the last tunnel there is a parking lot on the left (south) side for the visitor’s center at the dam. You can park here and look across the reservoir to the canyon wall on the other side. There is a narrow and steep cleft in the rocks of the canyon wall. It rises out of the reservoir waters and goes up the mountain side as far as you can see. If you look at the rocks on both sides of this cleft you might notice that they are not the same from one side to the other. It may not be obvious to you but this is a “fault.” Not a “mistake” but a fracture in the rocks along which movement has occurred, movement as in earthquake. I first saw this fault nearly thirty years ago during a field school in geology, as I recall the total movement along the fault, the “displacement,” is several hundred feet. That’s why the rocks don’t match. One side of the fault dropped down and/or the other side rose upward those several hundred feet relative to the opposing side.

Catastrophists and Uniformitarians would interpret this in two different ways. A Uniformitarian would think: most earthquakes are small, the biggest we have experience of result in movements measured only in tens of feet. It is likely that earthquakes far beyond our limited experience are possible and they could cause a displacement that was several times more the largest now known, say 75-100 or even more. Several hundred feet of displacement in a single earthquake is theoretically possible, statistically a once in a geologically long time chance, but still probably not impossible. Since we believe that the laws of physics, etc. in the past are the same as operate now the fault is not a single earthquake but a series of small and large events whose total net movement is several hundred feet. These events happened over an extended period of time with long intervals between them. They happened the same way earthquakes do today along any active fault line, and we can understand what happened in the past.

The Catastrophist thinks: that was one really big earthquake, sure glad we have only little ones now. The Catastrophist approaches the problem with the idea that what happened in the past has causes different than the present. The past is different from the present and is not understandable.

1Walter Alvarez and Frank Asaro (1990:84). An Extraterrestrial Impact. Scientific American 263(4):78-84.

2Spearing, Darwin 1995. Roadside Geology of Louisiana. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana. 1995:X-XI

3Wolpoff, Milford, 1986 Stasis in the Interpretation of Evolution in Homo erectus: A Reply to Rightmire. Paleobiology 12(3):325-328.

4 “Miracles are by definition arbitrary violations of the normal laws of nature and as such cannot be studied by the methods of science. To admit to their occurrence in order to explain the origin of certain structures in the world is to concede that a phenomenon lies forever beyond our comprehension—unless we accept the dictates of supernatural revelation.” (Bowler, Peter J.  Evolution: The History of an Idea.  University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989:7)

HOW THE GIRAFFE GOT ITS NECK

HOW THE GIRAFFE GOT ITS NECK

The idea of evolution was around long before Darwin,1The Origin of Species, or when he started thinking about the “species problem,” it was around before he was born.  What Darwin contributed wasn’t that evolution happened but that it was caused by natural selection. Before Darwin, one of the postulated mechanisms for evolution was the “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” This is often called Lamarckian evolution after Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829), a prominent supporter and defender of the concept.

According to the theory, physical characteristics acquired during life by an organism can be passed on to its offspring. By using or not using a body part,2 thus modifying it, the change would accumulate over generations leading to the evolution of a new species.

The classic example is the long neck of giraffes. The original ancestor of giraffes was a short-necked animal, probably similar to the living okapi, which fed on the leaves and twigs of trees. According to Lamarck, these proto-giraffes would stretch their necks in trying to reach the leaves higher up in the trees. Over the course of their individual lives this would cause their necks to become slightly longer. Their offspring would be born with this slightly longer neck. They, in turn, would also stretch their necks slightly trying to reach even higher leaves. Repeated over a number of generations the short-necked proto-giraffes would evolve into the long-necked giraffe we see today.

Darwin would have explained the evolution of the giraffe’s long neck as an example of how natural selection working on a population with variable traits can create a different organism, adapted for a different econiche.

Within the population of short-necked proto-giraffes there were some with necks longer than average, also some with necks shorter than average. Also there was a similar variation in the length of the legs and body size (leg and neck length are in proportion to body size and also absolutely longer in proportion). Perhaps the traits were related and perhaps not. The individuals who were longer necked, those longer legged, and those who were bigger than the average had an advantage eating leaves from trees. They could reach leaves that the others couldn’t. They could eat the same leaves that the other could reach and leaves the other’s couldn’t. In times of drought or anything else that reduced the numbers of leaves on the trees (including large numbers of proto-giraffes), those who could feed on the higher leaves could obtain more food. They were more likely, on average, to be better nourished and to survive famine conditions. The shorter-necked proto-giraffes were less likely to either survive or produce healthy offspring who stood a good chance of surviving. Gould (Bully for Brontosaurus 1991:166) ) discusses this example and mentions that perhaps the long neck was not an adaptation for feeding but a selective advantage in sexual competition. Giraffes fight among themselves slamming their heads and necks against each other. Whether this fighting is for sexual competition or social dominance (which can also have sexual advantages), I don’t know. A giraffe with longer and heavier neck would presumably have an advantage. “Knowing” the way evolution works, longer necks could have been selected for both because they were advantageous for feeding and for inter-specific competition.

Over generations the average neck length, leg length, and body size would increase. These three characteristics, if not already caused by related genes, would increasingly tend to occur together(co-evolution of genes). That is, any proto-giraffe with all three traits would generally do better than one with only one of the traits.

The example of a giraffe3 evolving a longer neck either by stretching its neck to reach higher leaves in a tree, or long-necked giraffes surviving better because they could reach higher leaves than other animals is repeated in many books to demonstrate the difference between Lamarck’s Evolution by the Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics and Darwin’s Evolution by Natural Selection. It is often believed that either Lamarck used the giraffe to demonstrate his theory or Darwin used it show how his theory was different. I have an old biology textbook that calls it “the classic example (though now rather hackneyed).”S.J. Gould (Bully for Brontosaurus 1991:166) believes that this comes from “a few lines of speculation” that Lamarck wrote. And it was about the giraffe’s legs (and he was wrong. A giraffe’s front legs are not longer than the rear). Darwin used the giraffe’s tail and its use as a fly swatter. Further, as Gould notes, there is no evidence that the giraffe’s long neck is an adaptation to eat leaves on the tops of trees. The fact that male giraffes fight by swinging their necks against their opponents, “necking,” and the winner is usually the taller giraffe makes one wonder. But I digress. That wasn’t why I brought up the subject of giraffes and their necks.

I have come across an illustration using this example. It is a series of four drawings of a giraffe standing next to a tree. In the first drawing the giraffe has a short neck which gets progressively longer until in the fourth drawing it is as long as the present day’s giraffe. What really got my attention is that the rest of the body didn’t change. The legs on the short-necked giraffe were just as long as those on the long-necked giraffe and the back had the same sloping line.

The evolution of the long neck on a giraffe involved more, much more, than a simple lengthening of the neck. There were many other changes involved, changes that had to proceed in some sort of coordination with the longer neck. Just how do random mutations coordinate themselves? Must they all happen in one fell swoop?

The neck of the giraffe is quite a bit longer than yours or mine, but for all its length it still has the same number vertebrae (seven) as our necks do. The length is achieved by making the body of each vertebra longer in relation to its diameter. Ours are sort of short, squat and round. The giraffe’s vertebra are long, round cylinders. However that is only a small part of the changes involved in increasing the length go the neck (or maybe the height of the head above the ground).

The greater the distance the head is above the heart the harder the heart has to pump to get enough blood to that head, and then you have the weight of a large volume of venous blood coming back down that same neck to the heart. And the reverse when the head is just about as far below the heart when it is lowered to take a drink of water. A head that might have to be very suddenly and quickly raised to allow the giraffe to escape an ambush at the waterhole by a lion.

A giraffe does have high blood pressure, nearly twice that of us, and a very large heart. The lower part of the carotid artery is very elastic. It expands when the heart pushes a mass of blood into it and then contracts helping to push that pulse of blood further up. The jugular is thick-walled so it doesn’t expand under the weight of the descending blood and it has numerous valves to prevent a reverse flow of blood when the head is lowered. The reta mirabile around the brain has a “bypass” from the carotid to the vertebral artery (for the neck muscles). There is no connection of the vertebral artery to the reta mirabile. This prevents congestion in the fine blood vessels of the reta mirabile by the overflowing of the vertebral artery when the head is lowered. The reta mirabile is also elastic and will absorb some increase of blood when the head is lowered and hold it momentarily when the head is raised. This prevents giddiness. (Unlike one author4 who implies that the reta mirabile is a “special pressure-reducing mechanism . . . provided” solely for that reason and is only in giraffe, it serves other functions and is a basic part of mammalian anatomy.)

A giraffe’s heart beats very fast, especially for an animal of its size. The veins and arteries of the legs are buried in a long, bony furrow, this prevents their swelling and the skin is very tight, not very elastic, and thick (just like support hosiery). So it acts as a”g-suit” to counter the pressure of the blood.

Taylor also points out how a human breathing through an eight foot tube would die because he would never inhale new air, he would simply re-breathe the same air over and over. He says this problem is “intractable” and leaves us to wonder if giraffes don’t breathe.

Giraffes have very large lungs to actually move enough air to get oxygenated air to the lungs. Even so a large part of the inhaled air remains in the trachea and is not used, wasted. The blood has a large number of small red corpuscles, that take up more oxygen very quickly and giraffes have a slow the rate of respiration to more thoroughly use the inhaled air.

The steeply sloping back of the giraffe is not because its front legs are so much longer than the back legs, as so many have believed (including some who should have known better like Lamarck). The front and rear legs are nearly the same length and the spine is nearly level, parallel to the ground. The shoulders of a giraffe are not as high as you might think, the steep slope of the back is due to the very tall spines on the thoracic vertebrae. These spines provide greater surface for the attachment of the enlarged neck muscles and, like the tall pillars of a suspension bridge, a better angle for those muscles to move and support the neck.

So how did all these different adaptations (and more) occur together, in a coordinated system? If evolution is random they can’t have occurred together.

A number of people don’t believe in evolution because they do not comprehend how it can occur, others deny it is true because they say it cannot occur. Others think that there had to be some Intelligent Designer (God) directing the whole thing. The purpose of the following scenario is to present a way, a plausible but not necessarily the way, a short-necked animal (similar to the okapi) could have evolved into a long-necked giraffe with all the different adaptations they have that form an integrated system that works together without being caused by Divine Intervention, direction, or an implausible sequence of random mutations occurring simultaneously.

This is a “thought experiment”and we need to choose a stating point because you need to begin somewhere. We will start with a proximal beginning, the ultimate starting point is with The Big Bang, or whatever was the beginning of the Universe. However this would make things unmanageable, or at least really long. To make things manageable and more to the point we will begin much closer to the point of what we want to illustrate. This is similar to starting a story in the middle and there is already a number of factors (previous history) that already exist and constrain the future. Keeping things manageable is also why we tend to deal with a single gene (or trait). One of the points behind this thought experiment is to show how many genes can appear to cooperate and evolve in unison.

We start with three givens:

1) An animal similar to the okapi (Okapi johnstoni). The okapi is chosen because it is the closest relative to the giraffe and it is similar to known fossil ancestors of the giraffe. It does have a neck that is somewhat elongated and a short body. They currently live in dense forests of the Congo. In the scenario a population of these animals is expanding their range into the more open woodlands.

2) A selective advantage to these animals of a longer neck. This advantage need not be the ability to eat leaves off the tops of trees. After all, maybe giraffes eat the leaves off the tops of tress because that is where their heads are (and maybe they aren’t taller because most trees are not). Maybe males battle between themselves for dominance by “necking” and a longer neck is part of being successful and being dominant leads to greater reproductive success. To a point, the exact reason for the selective advantage doesn’t matter, only that longer necks are part of it.

3) That there be variation between individuals and that it be inheritable. There must be some variation between the individuals o the species and that some of this variation (e.g. neck length, length of leg, size of lungs, heart rate, elasticity of the skin, etc.) be due to genetic, and inheritable, differences. This can be the presence or absence of a particular gene or genes, or the traits that are caused by multiple genes, the percentage of particular genes. Say “tallness” is due to the ratio of “tall” alleles to “short” alleles, the more “tall” alleles an individual has in its genotype, the taller it can grow. Potentially a population can contain quite a lot of variation. There are some 800 breeds of dogs in existence. Most of these breeds are of recent origin. Even the oldest breeds are not much more than 10,000 years old. It does not seem very likely that all the “new” traits that distinguish the various breeds are the result of recent gene mutations. A very large part of the variation within and between the breeds was present in the original canine populations. Man has simply identified various traits and by interbreeding the selected dogs (artificial selection), concentrated the alleles so that the chosen traits breed true and consistently. Although once the genetic variation in a gene pool is exhausted, new variation can only arise through mutation.

At the risk of being accused of making up a “Just-so Story” or, worse yet, of having a plausible scenario taken as factual, I want to give here a scenario of how it might be possible for a number of adaptations to evolve, forming a “coordinated” system. It is not intended to be an accurate account of giraffe evolution or even intended to be how it really did happen. Rather, the scenario is only meant to be plausible, to be a demonstration of a way it could have happened, an analogy to the how it did occur and an answer to critics’ claims that evolution cannot work by “natural” means. Evolution and natural selection can function in a natural way without miraculous of extremely improbable events.

Mostly we construct scenarios as if only one gene at a time is evolving. This scenario deals with multiple traits and genes.

So, beginning with an okapi-like animal, an even-toed ungulate living in the forests of Africa and expanding out into more open woodlands that, for whatever reason, is under selective pressure for a longer neck. Males gain greater access to females by defeating their rivals in head-slamming contests is an adequate selective pressure. In the male social structure dominance is achieved by physical contests between the males and part of the outcome between two males is based on which one is taller. The higher a male ranks in the social hierarchy the greater his access to females and the greater the likelihood of him successfully passing on his genes.

Every population of living sexually reproducing organisms contains an amount of variation (unless they are clones) in its gene pool. Some traits/characters will be closely “fixed,” others will be more variable in their expression. Humans have two hands, each hand has four fingers with three joints and one thumb with two joints. The vast majority any way, so many that two hands with four fingers and a thumb on each is “normal.” I knew a man with two little fingers (one growing off the side of the other) on his right hand (and two little toes his right foot) and someone born with a thumb and only two fingers on each hand (I presume the feet were similar but do not know for certain). Others area born with abnormally long and thin fingers (arachnodactyly) and some with two fingers joined together (syndactyly). These variations are known but generally rather rare. Humans vary in adult height. There is no single height for an adult that nearly everyone reaches that can be considered normal in the same way that two hands is normal. There is a range of variation in adult height and if it is plotted on a Cartesian graph (adult height on one axis and number of individuals on the other axis) the distribution will form something like the standard bell curve. Most individuals will be close the average with fewer and fewer individuals toward the extreme ends of the curve. There may be 7 foot humans but they are very rare, rarer than 6 foot 4 inch humans who are rarer then 6 footers who are much more common but not as common as 5’4″, 5’6″, or 5’8″ humans. Height is due to the effects of both multiple genes and the environment. There is no single gene5 that controls how tall you grow. Height is determined by how fast you grow, how much of the energy resources consumed are committed to growth, how long the body grows, etc. Some alleles will increase the body’s ability to grow taller and others will reduce the body’s ability to grow. We can call these alleles “tall” genes and “short” genes if you remember that they probably have other effects than just on height and that the amount and quality of food consumed and at what stage of growth also determine stature. You might have the genes to potentially grow to seven feet but if you do not get enough food when you are growing you will never reach your potential. Humans shorter than the average have more than the average number of genes that act to keep adult stature short. Humans taller than the average have more than the average number of genes that act to increase growth. If those persons at one end of the curve (the tails) do not contribute their mix of genes (for whatever reason) to the next generation, the proportion of those genes that contribute to that extreme condition will decrease in the gene pool. This will shift the average toward the other end. This is what natural selection is about. It doesn’t even require a total failure to pass on those genes, only a reduction. If those people are one percent of the population but their offspring form just less than one percent of the next generation, the gene pool will slowly lose those alleles.

In a population of proto-giraffes the situation is similar. In the gene pool of these proto-giraffes there are a number of genes/alleles that influence neck length, each proto-giraffe has in its own genetic makeup these genes in a particular mix and therefore a neck of a certain length. I am not saying that the neck length could be one foot, two foot, or seven or eight feet. The variation need be only inches. There is also variation in the length of the legs, the thickness of the skull, size of the heart, elasticity of the veins and arteries, tightness of the skin, etc. A male proto-giraffe may have a neck of average length but a skull that is thicker than average. Because the head is heavier he can deal heavier blows (and the thicker skull can better withstand the impact) to his opponents and achieve a higher status than other average-neck-length-males. He has a combination of genes for short and long neck (they average out to medium) and genes for a thicker skull (more genes for a thick skull than thin). He mates with one of more females with their own combination of genes for short and long necks and thin or thick skulls. Their offspring gets genes from both. The mother is more likely to have had a slightly-longer-necked-than average father and so the offspring is more likely to have a longer neck genes and thicker skull genes than others of its generation. This combination of slightly longer neck and heavier skull is more advantageous then either alone. The proportion of these genes in the population’s gene pool begins to increase. Not only does the proportion of them increase but the proportion of them occurring in the same individual increases. Necks get longer and skulls get heavier throughout the population. Now even longer necks and heavier skulls are favored. A gene pool can contain a very large amount of variation. The gene pool of proto-giraffes may already contain enough variation in the population of six foot high animals to grow one (with all long-necked genes) that is 18 feet tall. That is conceivably possible, however it is not necessary.

The neck would lengthen and as it does so the need would arise for the means of getting the blood to the head, dealing with the added pressure, stronger muscles, adequate surface to anchor those muscles, and what we may call the side effects of an elevated head—the longer trachea, the great difference between the raised head and the lowered head, etc.

All the differences between an okapi and a giraffe that make the giraffe’s longer neck and elevated head possible had to have either already existed in the gene pool of the proto-giraffe or “appeared” (by mutation) in it as the proto-giraffe evolved into the giraffe. There is a limit to how long the neck can grow and the legs lengthen (remember it is not the length of the neck but the height of the skull above the ground that really matters) before all these ancillary/supporting changes also need to exist.

With longer necks and legs being more advantageous to the population, the average length of the necks and legs would increase until some point where the gene pool’s supply of long neck/leg genes is either exhausted of the taller giraffes begin to have problems with inadequate oxygen in their lings, low blood pressure, weak necks, swollen ankles, etc. The selective pressure for longer necks still exists, a longer-necked male giraffe would still be at an advantage over shorter-necked males if he had the stamina to run long enough and fast enough to escape his predators, if in swinging his neck up from drinking he didn’t pass out, if his circulatory system didn’t keep losing blood to seepage in his lower extremities. All these and other “ifs” had to be coordinated6. The available variation in the genes of the length of the neck might be the limiting factor, but it might be the ability of the heart, or lung capacity, the height of the neural spines, the elasticity of the arteries/veins. All these factors are involved and the gene pool does not contain some variation involved with these. These form limiting factors, once the variation was exhausted, further selective pressure would have little effect except to maintain the change. Little effect until a mutation in any one of these genes permitted further increase until another limiting factor took effect. Then again things would halt until another advantageous mutation occurred. Evolution is not a gradual, smoothly continuous process, it will go in “fits and starts.” It can be gradual and smooth if all the needed genetic variation is already contained in the gene pool. If it isn’t, change has to await a useful mutation. Changes hits the end of available, stops, a useful mutation occurs, change resumes, uses of the new variability, stops, time passes, a useful mutation occurs, change resumes. ad infinitum. Faster, slower, irregularly, first a change in one thing, then something different. All the changes working over time (as long as the selective pressure remains) toward an end, that in looking back, appears to have been a coordinated and directed evolution to a predetermined goal. We believe (some of us anyway) that giraffes are as tall as they can be, evolution/natural selection has reached its “goal” with a 14 or 15 foot giraffe and stopped. It may be that an even longer neck is of no advantage any more in establishing dominance. Perhaps with a longer neck, a giraffe’s head would be above all the trees and there is not enough to eat. Maybe giraffes have reached the absolute physical limits for a mammal. Human basketball players can not get much taller. Our bones cannot withstand the stresses incurred by being taller, heavier, and active. Just maybe giraffes are as tall as they can get until an advantageous mutation occurs that permits them to exceed the current limits. Time will tell. Evolution hasn’t stopped.

Proto-giraffes were not trying to evolve into something new. No species is trying to evolve into a new species. Every organism is simply (well nothing is ever simple) struggling to be the species it is, just a little better than the others or, at least, no worse. By trying to maintain the status quo change happens. Evolution creates a new species.

When Darwin proposed his theory one of the problems with it that he recognized, was how a “favorable variation” (his term) could spread through a species. No one understood how “heredity” worked. It was apparent to people that children showed some traits of their parents. Others were aware that it was possible to breed animals for certain characteristics by selecting animals with the characteristics you wanted and breeding them (artificial selection). There was no knowledge of genetics or the principles of heredity.

Darwin had talked to various breeders, even doing some pigeon breeding himself. He had seen what humans had done to change various species and knew how they had done it. He had seen with his own eyes that species were changeable, variation normally existed between individuals of a species, and this variation was inheritable and by selective breeding certain traits could be emphasized.

Darwin’s critics pointed out that if a new trait, or favorable variation of an existing trait, appeared in one individual, that individual would have to mate with another who did not have the new trait. The new trait or variation would have to blend with the existing trait and it would effectively disappear. A proto-giraffe with a slightly longer neck would mate with one with an average neck, their offspring would mate have necks with a length in between that of their slightly longer-necked parent and the average-necked parent, so they argued. The offspring in turn would mate with average-necked proto-giraffe, resulting in offspring with necks even closer to average. Should any of these mate with a shorter-than-average-necked proto-giraffe the offspring would have average or even below average-length necks. Darwin had no effective answer to this, no one did. He could only say that he had seen breeds of animals developed by humans in which certain traits had been emphasized. Somehow it was possible for a new trait or favorable variation to increase in a population, become “fixed,” and bring about a significant alteration in the entire population.

1“Lamarck . . . is the real founder of this Theory of Descent . . . and it is a mistake to attribute its origin to Darwin. Lamarck was the first to formulate the scientific theory of the natural origin of all organisms, including man, and at the same time to . . .[infer] from this theory . . . the descent of man from the mammal most clearly resembling man—the Ape.” Ernst Haeckel 1897:84-85.

2Laamarckism seems to require behavior. Plants have no behavior so how do they evolve?

3 Gerenuks and ditabags also have necks that are, in proportion to the size of their bodies, longer than is “normal” for antelopes and/or gazelles. In Swahili gerenuks are called swala twiga, the impala giraffe. I have personally seen gerenuks feeding in tall bushes by standing almost straight up on their hind feet (resting their front feet on the limbs) to reach leaves nearly twice their height.

4 Gordon R. Taylor in The Great Evolution Mystery 1983:157.

5 Okay there are a few genes that can “overwhelm” all the other genes affecting height. There are several forms of dwarfism that are genetic and Abraham Lincoln probably suffered from Marfan’s syndrome, one the effects of which is his tall and gangly appearance. However height in the general population is due to multiple genes.

4 Coordination does not imply or require a “Coordinator” any more than design requires a “Designer.”

 

ENTROPY AND THE SNOWFLAKE

ENTROPY AND THE SNOWFLAKE

One of the arguments Creationists use against evolution is to claim that the spontaneous organization of life is a decrease in “entropy” and therefore a violation of the “Second Law of Thermodynamics.” They keep harping on how evolution is not possible because it is “contrary” to entropy. Somewhere I came across an article about how to identify life elsewhere in the Universe. Part of the problem was how to define “living.” The article argued that the ability to reverse entropy was a key characteristic. The Creationists, of course, argue that life is a “miracle” because of this. Actually it nullifies their argument. Entropy can be reversed, locally, with the input of energy which is what living organism do. They gather energy from the environment and use it to organize and run themselves.

Creationists claim that the appearance of life on this earth is contrary to the physical laws of the Universe and so has to the result of a “miracle,” divine will. Because life violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics it has to have been created by God. Following this line of argument every time a snowflake forms it is by an act of divine creations, billions of trillions of acts of creation by God during each snow storm. God may be infinite but a winter’s worth of storms and blizzards must keep him somewhat occupied. Allow me to explain.

First of all, just what is the “Second Law of Thermodynamics?” The first law is the “conservation of energy.” Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can be converted from one form to another form (e.g. heat, light, motion. magnetic, mass, etc.). The second law is that in any conversion, any flow of energy (“work”), there is some loss of energy. This “loss” of energy is not the destruction of energy but a wastage. Some of the energy is lost to friction, that is, no energy conversion is 100% efficient. This loss is called “entropy,” and in any closed system it will increase until there is no usable energy left and the system ceases to function. This is why perpetual motion machines are impossible. Entropy is also defined as “the disorder that increases in any organized system until it is completely random.” An example of this is the “heat death” of the Universe. The Universe, with its galaxies, stars, solar systems,etc., is an organized system. Energy is flowing in vast amounts and vast amounts of this energy is lost. Entropy increases and eventually the Universe will cease to exist as we know it, all this organization will be gone and presumably, it will be just some heat and matter spread evenly and thinly throughout space. Fortunately for us this is billions of years in the future and  we will never have to worry about it.

On a more local scale, a pot of hot water will cool to the surrounding air temperature. The organized system of some higher energy atoms (the hot water) collected in a close group (the pot) separate from some lower energy atoms (the surrounding air) will become increasingly cooler (less ordered) until there is no difference in the energy levels between the water and the air. Given even more time, the water evaporates, mixing with the less humid air until the water molecules are randomly distributed among the air molecules. Over even longer periods of time the pot will do the same (corrosion) and it will cease to exist as a separate, organized entity.

Creationists interpret the Second Law of Thermodynamics to mean that complex, organized molecules such as the amino acids used by living organisms cannot occur “naturally” because there formation would require a reduction of entropy. The appearance of the molecules needed to form living organisms would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. According to their interpretation of it and so God had to intervene and by divine miracle (miracles are by definition a violation of natural law) create life. This particular interpretation predicts that the organized structure of a snowflake, formed when water vapor crystallizes into an orderly arrangement, cannot occur by natural processes and is thus an act of divine creation. It also can be stretched, but only slightly, to predict that a hot bath or, as Issac Asimov  pointed out (Asimov on Physics, 1976:228-ff), refrigerators are then, if not caused by God, at least possessing God-like attributes.

Having gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, it would seem that there is something wrong with the Second Law of Thermodynamics or at least how it is interpreted. There is. Let’s go back to the definition, particularly that part about “closed system” that I skimmed right past and the idea that the Second Law of Thermodynamics was more about the loss of energy in any energy conversion than about “increasing disorder.”

I passed over the “closed system” without comment deliberately. The Creationists do this too, but unlike them, I will come back and comment on it. A closed system is one that no energy either enters it or leaves it, it is a system that is completely isolated from the rest of the Universe. I do mean The Universe (with a capital U), not just some part of it, but all of it in any way, shape, or form. Such a system exists more in theory than in actuality. We can construct systems that are almost completely isolated, systems closed enough for our purposes. (The “cold fusion” flap was because the experimenters failed to take into account the heat of the room and mistook it for energy generated by the experiment.) However there is only one true closed system, the Universe.

If energy enters a system from outside it, the system can become more organized. This increased order (decreased entropy) is only local to that system. Entropy increases elsewhere, even within the system. The energy that entered it was used to increase order and part of that energy was also lost as entropy (friction). The energy level of the system increased as more energy entered,some work was performed to increase organization and the entropy of the system increased as some of the energy was lost because of friction.

Any truly closed system will run down as friction reduces the amount of usable energy. Any system that has more energy entering it than is lost by friction (entropy) can continue to run and even. locally, reverse entropy and become more organized. Energy does not have to enter the system for work to be done, it does have to come from somewhere though.

Defining entropy as the “measure of disorder in a system . . . ” (Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, 1984:436) is not the sole definition. In fact it is not the first and primary definition in my dictionary, it is the second. “Disorder” is hard to define, the original definition of entropy as “the energy that is unavoidably lost as non-useful heat,” (Issac Asimov, The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, 1960:365) is a more accurate and useful definition. When water vapor in the atmosphere condenses to form water droplets or crystallizes to form ice, the molecules are at a lower energy state and have to release energy. This energy is released as heat, the “heat of condensation.” For snowflakes, this heat is absorbed by the atmosphere. by the molecules of the atmospheric gases. I remember being outside one cloudy winter day and feeling the air warm up just as it started to snow. On this occasion I was actually able to detect the release of that “heat of condensation” as the water vapor turned to snow. The change was only a few degrees, those few degrees represented the increase in entropy caused by the increase in the organization of the water molecules.

When I wrote the draft of this it was snowing outside, this is a normal, natural phenomena. The spontaneous organization of water molecules into the intricate, patterned structure of a snowflake is not considered a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that requires the intervention of God. Physicists can demonstrate how the formation of snowflakes is in accord with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The millions, billions, or trillions of snowflakes now forming and falling outside of my window are evidence that complex structures can and do form by natural processes without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Life, its origin and evolution, is a natural phenomena. It does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In point of fact, the processes of life demonstrate the working of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

PREDATION: DARWIN, AFRICA, AND THE DEFENSELESSNESS OF MAN

PREDATION:

DARWIN, AFRICA, AND THE DEFENSELESSNESS OF MAN

Based on Africa being the home of the gorilla and the chimpanzee, man’s closest animal relatives, Darwin predicted that man evolved in Africa. This was accepted by almost nobody. The popular belief was that man had evolved in Asia. Henry Fairfield Osborn was among the leaders in this idea. As head of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City he was able to fund several expeditions to Central Asia to look for evidence supporting his ideas. A number of these were led by Roy Chapman Andrews, thought by some to be the model for Indiana Jones. These expeditions found no evidence of fossil man, however they did discover dinosaur fossils, including the first identified dinosaur eggs.

A large part of the reason why Africa was not believed to be the place where man evolved was because it had so many dangerous beast. Man was believed to be a weak and defenseless being, incapable of surviving in the wild without culture and tools, primarily weapons. His ancestors would have been even more defenseless.

Baboons survive on the savanna because of their large canines. (I have seen baboons and a male baboon’s canines are large, larger than a lion’s fangs.) They can defend themselves against predators. Chimpanzees and gorillas also have large canines and live in the shelter of the forests. The smaller monkeys are arboreal and not at risk of being hunted, or so they claimed. Leopards hunt both arboreal monkeys and baboons. Man could not have evolved on the African savanna, the theory claimed, because it was too dangerous. Man must have evolved on the steppes of central Asia where there were few dangerous predators. The Duke of Argyll1 argued that man is physically weak and, except for his brains, has no really specialized survival mechanisms. So how could man “have been modified in the direction of greater weakness without inevitable destruction, until first by the gift of reason and of mental capacities of contrivance, there had been established an adequate preparation for the change.” Only when man had weapons to arm himself could he survive on the African savanna. It was during Chapman’s last expeditions (all of which had failed to find hominine fossils) that Raymond Dart unveiled the Taung hominine fossil.

It has been said that Taung was found in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place was South Africa and the time was wrong because Piltdown was still believed to be real. It is true that there was resistance to accepting Taung as an ancestor because it was from Africa. But many more fossils from Africa have forced a change of opinion. As part of this change of opinion, the backlash, was the Killer Ape Hypothesis. If man did evolve in Africa, did survive and evolve on the African savanna, man must have been a born killer.

Alongside this view, and far older, is the view that man is a meek, mild, inoffensive vegetarian. This is also part of the view that man evolved in Asia. This view still continues today, included in this is the idea that man is separate from, and not a part of, nature. Darwin thought that a strong gorilloid creature with size, strength and ferocity would never become social, that being comparatively weak could tend to socialization. Man may have evolved on a large, safe island or continent (like Australia).

I have heard that man “stinks,” tastes bad, or that animals fear him; therefore man is not normally preyed upon. Only extreme hunger, old age, or crippling injuries that leave a predator unable to kill its “normal” prey causes a predator to attack man. And only being attacked by man or in self-defense is why otherwise benign vegetarians attack man. This line of thought is based on the belief that man is not at risk from “nature,” he is not normally a target of predation and if he was not acting as a predator himself (“hunter”) he would be left alone and perfectly safe. The “rules” are different for man, he is separate from nature. Maybe city-dwellers surrounded by concrete and steel and all the trappings of man’s culture and technology, with nothing of the natural world nearby, can believe this, I cannot. Man is part of the world and he is both predator and prey. He has been for millions of years.

I dated a woman off and on for several years and about once a week or so we would rent several movies and spend the evening at her place watching them (she had both a TV and a VCR). We always rented two movies, one of her choice and one of mine, both choices had to be acceptable to both of us. She liked to watch horror films and I had no interest at all in. When she picked one I always said no. One day, in the video store she asked me why I never wanted to watch them. I told her I did not enjoy being scared and I saw no reason to deliberately try to terrify myself, even if it was artificial and not real. If she wanted to feel a shiver of fear, a real fear, all she needed to do was go camping in bear country. She had no need to go very far to do it. Around here some of those bears are grizzly bears. I have done a fair share of camping in bear country, most of it alone and not always in a tent. Honestly, I don’t sleep well. I would always wake up in the middle of the night (it seemed to always be 3:00am, no joke, I think I could have set my watch by it, it seemed to be so consistent) and lie awake for about an hour listening to the silence before going back to sleep, tossing and turning until dawn when I would sleep better for an hour or two before getting up. There were nights though when it wasn’t silent and it was a noise that had woken me up. One night, probably far closer to midnight than 3:00am, I woke up because of a cracking sound. At first I thought it was a deer or an elk stepping on a stick. As I lay there and waited for the elk to trip over my tnet and knee me in the chest, I heard the noise again and it sounded more like someone ripping a 2×4 apart, ripping it apart lengthwise rather than snapping it in half. There is only one creature that can do that, well actually two, but they are both bears: grizzly and black bears. I was camped about 10 feet away from the bank of the creek (Kintla Creek in the northwest corner of Glacier National Park). The bear sounded to be on the opposite side of the creek, perhaps 40-50 feet away. My truck was a maybe ten feet away, in the opposite direction, so I spent the rest of the night in the truck cab. When I got in the truck I debated locking the door before deciding it would make no difference, if the bear wanted in, it wasn’t going to use the door handle. In the morning I noticed that there was a stump directly across the creek from where I had setup my tent, with a large areas of newly exposed wood. There had been a bear.

There are things that go bump in the night and man has learned over many millions of years to be afraid of them. The ones in the daylight also. There is some evidence that Taung may have been killed by an eagle and at Swartkrans, the skull SK54 has two holes exactly the size and distance apart of the extinct leopard whose fossil remains have also been found at the site.

1 Primeval Man 1884:22

 

ASSUMPTIONS

ASSUMPTIONS

Anthropology has any number of hidden assumptions and preconceptions that have an impact on our ideas, theories, and conceptions of human evolution. The impact is all the greater for being unrealized. Louis Binford upset the archaeology world by questioning many of the basic assumptions (or what had become basic assumptions) in archaeology. For instance you find tools and bones together, then humans used the tools to butcher the animals the bones came from, animals they had hunted. Or you find hundreds of tools lying around together then it is a human occupation site. Part of what you are arguing is that you must first demonstrate that there is an association caused by human behavior not just a fortuitous collection of objects. When you find a site or fossil or other artifact do not assume that it is an archaeological site, you have to first show that it is an archaeological site (due to human action) or that it is a paleontological site (not due to human action).

Paleoanthropology, as the study of ancient humans is known, is 150 years old, and in that time has gathered, discarded, and modified many ideas, theories, facts, fossils, etc. Not all of the old, wrong ideas and theories are completely gone. Some linger on, unconsciously shaping our ideas for better or worse. Scientists may know that Neandertal was not the slouching, shambling. dull-witted brute that forms the archetypal image of the “cave man.” How many of the public know this is another matter. Yet back of the mind of the scientist lurks this wrong image or another, that throws shadows over our current ideas and theories.

The arguments pro and con have gone back and forth for years. Paleoanthropologists have changed much of what they think, some has filtered through to the public. We have changed an idea here but don’t follow it through all of our theories to form a coherent whole, an internally consistent theory of human evolution. Evolution is a unifying theory, studying evolution should teach you that everything is connected (I hope that I can show you that if only by the diversity of examples I use1). To say that modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa 125,000-250,000 years ago is not just a fact relevant to the point of origin. It says something about non-African Homo erectus and Neandertal, and perhaps Neandertal evolved from H. erectus

There are any number of inconsistencies in our theories of human evolution. Our helpless slow-growing infants are an effect of our big brain which we need for increasing use of tools and to function effectively in society (even if it was only a small band). The “obstetric dilemma” is related to a biped trying to give birth to a large-brained infant. Lucy didn’t have this problem. A large-brain that cannot taught what it needs to learn is useless. The long human childhood is related to the need for time to learn and an environment and social structure that can provide that reliably and consistently teaches the culture, the technological knowledge to the child.

These are all interrelated and late appearing in our history. There is anatomical and archaeological evidence for this. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has a naked female “ape” growing long head hair so that its helpless infant can have something to hang onto and not float off. Elaine Morgan ignores that she is talking about a small-brained ape predecessor of the australopithecines who did not use tools, did not give birth to large-brained slow-maturing infants. She has them act like it but provides no rational. There are other inconsistencies in her theory. There are also inconsistencies in the “Savannah Hypothesis,” as she correctly points out. The point is to weed out the inconsistencies and make the theory closer to the evidence and coherent.

The old ideas form the base on which we construct the new ideas. That this substratum remains in places still shows through, sometimes unaltered and sometimes only partly, like the old coat of paint that shows through the new. I want to synthesize all that we now know and believe into one theory.

In the researching and writing for these postings, I re-read (or used it as an excuse to re-read) much that I had already read and to read previously unread stuff. I also read it critically, paying attention to why they wrote what they did, what it was based on, how it fit into current knowledge, etc. I have found some of my own inconsistencies. What I thought before I started this is not what I think now. My ideas have changed and I have had to go back over what I have written to make other changes to be consistent. Also I tried to eliminate “errors” that are part of the literature. Hopefully this is much more consistent now. This is how it should be. Science is not static, a scientist should change his mind as new facts are found. I do not intend to be the “final” statement, only the latest, and hopefully closer to the truth. I expect my ideas to be changed, they had better be.

In the 1950s and 60s the popular camera was the 35mm SLR (does anybody remember them?). The 35mm replaced the large-format film cameras partly because they were smaller, more convenient, and simpler to use. Once they were introduced natural development led them to being more versatile, more capable. Features were added, they got better, they got larger. In the late 60s a company thought that just maybe they could design an SLR from scratch that had all these added features designed in from the beginning, maybe the entire design could be integrated, not just “tacked on” to an existing design. The result was the Olympus OM-1. It was some 35% smaller, with a cleaner design. They became quite popular, I own four of them.

Current paleoanthropologic theory is like those SLRs, it has changed over the years, new “features” tacked on, some old ones removed. It has gotten bulky. It is time to “redesign” the theory so it is compact, integrated, and consistent.

To some extent I will do as the Creationist’s want (or all they say they want when they talk of Balanced Science)—that is: to give equal time to their theory. I won’t give equal time (or written space in this case), but I will give it more than it warrants. I discuss other alternate theories of human evolution so it is only fair that I include Creation. It will not get equal time with evolution any more than the alternate theories will get equal time. We do not give the Ptolemaic Universe equal time with the current theory (astrology versus astronomy). Neither do we give equal time to alchemy and chemistry. Science is not like politics where we have decided that politicians are of equal value, any difference being a matter of personal choice. In science some ideas are wrong (not in accord to the facts) and wrong ideas do not need to be dealt with, except maybe to refute. They certainly do not deserve equal treatment.

At least at one point while I was writing this I thought it was more like philosophy. Well it partly is, a large part of how I think, how I view and interpret the world, why I act as I do is a product of these ideas. They form my world-view. All of us base our thoughts, ideas, and actions on our world-view. This is mine.

1 I have used examples from all over the animal kingdom both because they are relevant and because I want to emphasize that we are all part of a vast “whole.” Darwinists are not limited to a few examples, there are many. Evolution does not depend on some vague theories, its application to humans is not just some “hope,” the examples are legion and varied. Man is one of the best documented.

Evolution is not based one or two flimsy ideas, it is a large complex interwoven structure of which man is a connected, small but important, part.