Sunday, January 10, 2010

Evolution is like hella hard and stuff

A few months ago, I finished reading Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I'll be honest - I skipped about half of one chapter where it just got too darned technical. I consider myself a fairly intelligent person still, and the one thing that I hate to admit after having read this book is this: evolution is too difficult for a lot of people to understand.

Sure, there are countries where the vast majority of people accept evolution. Accepting and understanding are two different things though. Just as there are people who claim to be Christian, and yet they don't know some of the basic concepts of their own religion (like when I have Catholics tell me that they aren't Christians) I am sure that there are folks who have sided with the evolutionary explanation of how life got here, and they'd be hard-pressed to explain some of its most basic concepts. Shoot, I've had to correct some people who accept evolution when they described it as "random". Evolution's not random, people - the only thing random about it is the mutations. As for which mutations are selected to be passed down, there isn't anything random about it.

The thing is with this book is that all it will do is arm the rationalist with some more information while debating the "history deniers" (that's Dawkins' term for those who don't accept evolution - a fairly fitting one, I think). I don't think that it's going to convince anybody. It especially won't convince the sort of person who continues to think that evolution has something to do with us "coming from monkeys" or thinks that the Big Bang is part of evolutionary theory. Generally speaking, those people have had it explained to them time and again how they don't even understand the whole idea behind evolution. If they continue to repeat those same strawmen, this book won't get them to stop.

With that said though, the book is amazing. Sure, it's a tough slog in a lot of parts. Still, I was able to understand most of it, and the parts that I understood filled me with a real sense of awe and appreciation for the simple fact that I'm even alive in the first place. Not only that, but it gave me an even greater sense of how connected everything is. Everything that's alive is related - albeit some things much more distantly related than others. And it's not like there's just a little bit of evidence - the evidence is overwhelming. Ever since Darwin published his theory, there has been so much new information that's been discovered - and so much of it could have led to his theory being tossed out the door. And yet what happened? It all just continued to support the theory! The funny thing is, the creationists of all stripes keep talking about Darwin's theory like it's on the way out - as though its time has come. They've been saying this for about 150 years now. The thing is, if it ever is found to be untrue, it won't be by the likes of the creationists who disprove it - it will be actual, real scientists.

As I said though, the book is pretty dense in some places. I really like the bits about adaptations and whatnot, but I get a little lost when he explains radiometric dating. I can understand it while I read it, but I'm probably not so good at explaining it to somebody. I remember when I was a kid asking my parents about how the Earth could only be as old as many of the religious-types say when scientists use carbon-14 dating to prove that it's actually quite a bit older. Their response, no doubt told to them by some ignorant creationist, was that carbon-14 is only good for dating things back so far. This is true, but what creationists don't like to talk about is that carbon-14 is only one form of radiometric dating - there are other kinds that are far more reliable for much longer time spans.

I guess the last thing that I should point out is that while this book is clearly anti-Intelligent Design, it's not like his book The God Delusion which sought to explain why the belief in God is illogical. He's not concerned with disproving anything. Instead, this book is a one-stop guide to everything we currently know about evolutionary theory. I'd like to see the likes of Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron refute what's in there instead of going after Darwin, who's not around to defend himself.


Matthew said...

I don't know if it's too technical or not, but the Scientist published a great article today highlighting 3 potential additions to the contemporary view of evolution. It's a great article from a purely scientific standpoint, but (possibly more importantly) there's also a social commentary subtext about the flexibility of even very well established scientific theories. It's worth a read if you've still got evolution on the brain.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

It's just a theory. I didn't come from no monkey.