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Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 16

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 16, Bateson - A Brilliant Light.

Knowing what we now know about genetics, it's hard to imagine a time when people would have thought that it cast doubt on evolution. Here, McCann was quoting one of the founders of genetics, William Bateson.

"If we cannot see how a fowl by its egg and its sperm gives rise to a chicken or how a sweet pea from its ovule or its pollen grain produces another sweet pea we at least can watch the system by which the differences between the various kinds of fowl or between the various kinds of sweet pea are distributed among the offspring. . . . Until Mendel began this analysis nothing but the vaguest answers to such a question had been attempted. THE EXISTENCE OF ANY ORDERLY SYSTEM OF DESCENT (denied by Haeckel) WAS NEVER EVEN SUSPECTED." (McCann 205-206)

It's a bit silly to say that "the existence of any orderly system of descent was never even suspected". Of course an orderly system was expected. It's pretty obvious that dogs don't give birth to cats. The difference is that before Mendel, most scientists suspected blending inheritance. Mendel discovered that whatever it was that controlled inheritance was discreet. We now know that it's our genes, coded in DNA.


Here's another case of human exceptionalism.

Alas, by what violence of imagination are we to trace man's inheritance of the art faculty, the metaphysical faculty, the faculty of wit and humor, the faculty of scientific investigation, to the seed of an ape or of any other lower animal, without the intervention of God? (McCann 206)

I'm not going to quote de Waal yet again, but here's a link to his article in the New York Times.

We're probably smarter than any other animals. We're certainly more technological, and are the only animals that practice science. But let's not get too conceited over it. If we were cheetahs, we'd scoff at how slow all the other animals were. Or if we were blue whales, at how small they were. Or if we were swifts, at how land-bound they were. For any given trait, some species is going to be the best. But it's just one trait. Plus, it may not be the best by much. Just like a pronghorn is nearly as fast as a cheetah, dolphins and elephants appear to be nearly as smart as us, just not with a technological bent. The other great apes are all pretty smart, too.


Although McCann sees humans as much, much higher than 'lower' animals, he still apparently doesn't have a very high regard for our species.

We are living in an age of intellectual pride which takes as little heed of its futile vanities as of its paradoxical pursuit of gross humiliations. Few of us stop to consider that it was not the brain of the average fallen man that has given us the printing press, the cotton gin, the smelter and the anvil, the engine and the dynamo, the telegraph and the telephone, the trans-Atlantic liner and the aeroplane, the microscope and the telescope. We employ these majestic discoveries as if they were our own; as if they had not been given to us by a comparatively few geniuses standing as solitary luminaries above and beyond the average mass of fallen humanity. The poet Longfellow must have had some such thought in mind when, referring to the Mother of Christ, he penned the line, "Our tainted nature's solitary boast." (McCann 208-209)


Maybe things were different in McCann's time, but it's certainly not the scientific community that conflates evolution and abiogenesis these days.

By this time the student through his examination of facts and contradictions has probably arrived at the conclusion that the whole doctrine of evolution has been directed into lanes of confusion and darkness by reason of its vain assumption that its object was to explain the origin of life upon this planet. To attain progress along this deliberately selected route it was forced to espouse the assumption of a monophyletic evolution of the whole kingdom of organic life from a single cell which sprang into existence through some never repeated phenomenon of spontaneous generation. (McCann 210-211)

In discussions such as this, though, the distinction between evolution and abiogenesis is a bit of a moot point - there are few people who accept evolution who wouldn't also accept abiogenesis. However, 'monophyletic evolution' was not an initial assumption. It was the conclusion after studying the evidence.


You can see the precursors of the creationist micro- vs. macro-evolution canard.

The net result of his [Standfuss - jrl] extraordinary experiments took the shape of an opinion that the only really important variations of species are those modifications caused by definite external influences, which modifications, described as "adaptive variations" are transmitted to succeeding generations. (McCann 212)

It is common nowadays to hear creationists say that 'microevolution' occurs, but not 'macroevolution'. These are in fact real terms, but they're misused by creationists. To quote from Talk Origin's Index to Creationist Claims, "Microevolution is defined as the change of allele frequencies (that is, genetic variation...) within a population... Macroevolution is defined as evolutionary change at the species level or higher, that is, the formation of new species, new genera, and so forth." Many creationists actually do accept that macroevolution as properly defined does happen (it's the only way to explain the Noah's Ark story), and instead take macroevolution to mean some unspecified big change. Still, where's the stop sign? If you have enough small changes over many generations, what's to stop that resulting in a big change? The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (and sometimes ends badly).


Despite all the talk of bad science, here McCann gets down to the real reason he doubts evolution.

Polyphyletic evolution, instead of getting back to an accident resulting in a single stock from which the myriads of modern living creatures in the animal and vegetable kingdoms have descended, begins with numerous stocks expressly created by God and controlled as to their variations by the operation of fixed laws revealing plan and purpose. (McCann 212)

It really is religion that makes McCann reject evolution.


Proceed to Chapter 17

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