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Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 10

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 10, The Descent of Farce Comedy.

If McCann were alive today, I think he would be of the variety that says that mutations are all harmful, and can't ever add new information.

One year later, January, 1903, Sir Oliver Lodge, writing in Hibbert Journal, p. 218, declared himself in similar fashion. These are his words: "Take the origin of species by the persistence of favorable variation; how is the appearance of these same favorable variations accounted for? Except by artificial selection not at all. Given their appearance, their development by struggle and inheritance and survival can be explained; BUT THAT THEY AROSE SPONTANEOUSLY, BY RANDOM CHANGES WITHOUT PURPOSE, IS AN ASSERTION WHICH CANNOT BE MADE." Nor does he stand alone in this conviction. (McCann 122)

I think Richard Lenski's experiment, where e. coli developed mutations that gave them the ability to digest a new food source (citrate), certainly show that random mutations can result in new functions (unless people want to argue that an Intelligent Designer manipulated the bacteria in Lenski's lab).

McCann even talks of thoughts very similar to what we would now call punctuated equilibrium.

Speaking before the International Congress of Arts and Science, September 22, 1904, he employed illustrations from the history of fossil fishes which were his specialty and from the evidence thus afforded announced: "It must be confessed that repeated discoveries have now left faint hope that exact and gradual links will ever be forthcoming between most of the families and genera. Even approximate links would be much commoner in collections than they actually are if the doctrine of gradual evolution (infinitesimal steps in gigantic periods of time) were correct. Palæontology indeed is clearly in favor of sudden changes which have lately received so much support from the botanical experiments of H. De Vries." (See the Congress Report, vol. iv.)

We have had "early changes of great violence followed by stability;" "slow changes so gentle and infinitesimal in gradations as to require millions of years before they could be observed;" "sudden changes under our very eyes." Alas, what have we not had? And this is what they call evolution! - this ceremonial burial of "Darwinism." (McCann 122-123)

This is one of the funnier attempts I've seen at arguing that vestigial organs aren't evidence of evolution.

An instance in point is cited by Professor Vernon Kellogg ("Darwinism Today," 1908, pp. 37-38): "Spencer's example of the femur of the whale is a striking illustration of the reality of the absurdity connected with the argument of change (evolution) on a basis of the selection of infinitesimal differences. The femur of the whale, says Spencer, is evidently the atrophied rudiment of a bone once much larger. It weighs now about an ounce, less than a millionth the weight of the whole body. Let us suppose that when it weighed two ounces, an individual (whale) had a femur which by variational chance weighed but one ounce, what advantage over other whales would the difference give it - and yet this is the argument for the reduction of useless organs through the influence of natural selection." (McCann 124)

From our modern vantage point, we're very lucky to have a good understanding of whale evolution. We can actually see the transformation of that rear leg into the vestige that now exists.

Let's look at McCann's question, though, of why natural selection would favor reduction of the femur. In the ancestors of modern whales, when the leg was still large enough to protrude from the body, I think the advantage of reducing its size would be obvious - reduced drag, allowing the ancient whales to swim faster and more efficiently. It's also important to remember that nothing comes for free. To grow a leg takes resources, i.e. food. If a whale didn't have to grow a leg, it could either put those same resources into other parts of its body, or get by on less food.

There's also another possibility. Sometimes people have a tendency to attribute too much to natural selection. The adaptationists look at every trait of an organism, and assume that it must have conferred some selective advantage. That's not always the case. What if, for example, a trait has very little effect on an organism one way or the other? The whales' vestigial femur is, at this point, minuscule. The selective advantages from the above paragraph wouldn't be very great, and probably wouldn't have much effect on the survival of a whale who's femur was slightly bigger or slightly smaller. But, consider the types of mutations that could occur on the genes that produce the femur. What if those genes become damaged? In animals like us that need our femurs, those types of mutations would be weeded out very quickly, because the affected individuals wouldn't have many offspring (in the wild, they'd have none at all). But for whales, mutations that damage the development of the femur, so long as they had no other effects on the whale, wouldn't be a problem at all. They wouldn't get weeded out of the population. In fact, given how common mutations are, they would probably start to pile up. So, if there's no selective pressure to preserve an organ, deleterious mutations will begin to pile up, destroying the original function of that organ. (This is also the explanation for why cave dwellers lose their eye sight.)

And here's a real doozy on appendicitis, attempting to explain that it isn't really a problem.

"But why," asks the evolutionist, "if there is really a design behind creation, should there be an inflammation of the appendix resulting in disease?"

In answer to this, leaving out all hint of theology and relying solely upon pathology, one can go direct to Germany where the whole theory of evolution, as now popularly presented, was born. One of Germany's most eminent pathologists, Professor G. Bier, the successor of von Bergmann, propounded and established the thesis (Virchow's Archiv, 1897) that inflammations are not instances of inexpediency, but are, on the contrary, beneficial prophylactic devices on the part of an organism to rid itself of bacteria or other injurious matter that may have penetrated the system. A splinter driven into the flesh and left alone will be driven out again by inflammation and pus, most expedient and beneficial. (McCann 126)

Go talk to a doctor, and ask them what they think about appendicitis. I don't think you'll find too many people agreeing with McCann.

Here's a statement of McCann's that I would agree with, though I don't think he meant it seriously.

To be strictly orthodox as evolutionists we must now say that sheep and man, goat and man, and horse and man are related by blood. (McCann 128)

It's as if McCann has some mental block that keeps him from understanding what evolutionary biology actually says. It's like he thought of the human-ape connection, and couldn't get past that. Looking to the human goat connection seems outlandish to him. I suppose the human onion connection would be completely beyond his comprehension.

Just to be clear, universal common descent really does mean universal. All life that we know of on this planet, from bacteria to blue whale, shares a common ancestry.

I wonder what McCann would say if he were alive today and able to see the work of modern scientists, such as Jane Goodall.

It is difficult to understand why certain types of scientists consider bodily differences or bodily resemblances of such vast importance when even to the lay-man the mental divergence constitutes the chief difference between man and beast. The rational soul of man, as distinguished from the brute instincts of the ape, constitutes a gap over which science makes no effort to throw a bridge of any kind. (McCann 131)

In a recent article in the New York Times, primatologist Frans de Waal wrote the following, which is very relevant to the above quote.

In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable... True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don't hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another's point of view.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee's, doesn't contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain. No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

Proceed to Chapter 11

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