God - Or Gorilla? Archive

Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 24 & 25

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 24, Those "Six Days" of Creation and Chapter 25, The Evidence of Man.

Chapter 24

Chapter 24 is titled 'Those "Six Days" of Creation', and focuses more on the Bible than any other part of the book except for one of the appendices. I have to admit that I was especially interested in this chapter, since it relates to an essay I've written previously, Problems With a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis. I was curious to see how McCann would explain some of the language that just doesn't seem to make sense to me.

This following passage might seem to indicate that at least McCann wasn't a young earth creationist.

It has been the fashion among certain higher critics to focus an intense emphasis upon the Six Days of creation as recorded by the Mosaic narrative. They insist that each day shall be fixed literally, mathematically and astronomically as a period of twenty-four hours by the clock, notwithstanding the fact that the Mosaic word for "day" means an indefinite cosmic period of time, a while.

The scriptural use of the word "day" may mean just as much or just as little as any arbitrary chronology may demand, yet the parallel between the chronological order of the Mosaic narrative of creation and the most advanced discoveries of natural science is so marvelous that it inspired the great Ampere to observe: "Either Moses knew as much about science as we, or else he was inspired." (McCann 286)

However, just a few pages later, he shows that he might be.

Certain it is that instead of the hundreds of thousands of years [of human existence] demanded by the materialist the scientific probability approaches ever closer to 10,000 years, thus showing a tendency to return to the chronology of the Bible, according to which the Jews reckon that 5,682 years have elapsed (1921) since the creation of Adam. (McCann 291)

This type of inconsistency (some might call it dishonesty) from some creationists has always bothered me. I mentioned it in the beginning of another entry on problems with a day age interpretation of Genesis. Granted, not all creationists use this tactic, but it's infuriating with the ones that do. They'll insist that the Bible is meant to be taken literally, and that the plain sense of words should be used - right up until you use it to point out an absurdity, at which point they say that that particular passage was meant to be figurative or a parable or due to a translation error. So, sometimes the Earth really was created in six 24 hour days, and sometimes the lengths of the days are arbitrary. It all depends on what hour of the day you talk to them.

McCann did bring up a good point about reading ancient texts.

Jerome, one of the foremost of scripture scholars, laid down a principle that must ever guide the student. Be stressed the point that certain things in the sacral writings may be said "according to the ideas of time or according to the appearance of things rather than according to the actual truth." Even today we speak of "the rising and the setting of the sun." (McCann 293)

First of all, poetic license was in use thousands of years ago, just like today. The Song of Solomon is an obvious example of this. And, as McCann pointed out, there were probably phrases in common use that weren't meant to be interpreted so naively literally.

However, McCann's point is a double edged sword. When he quotes Jerome as saying "according to the ideas of time", we have to keep in mind what those ideas might have been, and avoid reading them through the filter of modern understanding. Just consider the world as described in Genesis. Through science, we've learned pretty much what our world is like and how it fits into the universe. We live on a ball of rock with a molten core, orbiting a giant ball of fusing gas, which is itself orbiting the center of our own galaxy, which is part of the local galactic cluster. When many people read the Bible, especially if they start with the preconception that the Bible is accurate, they interpret it to match our modern cosmology. But, many have argued that if you read the Bible looking for the authors' original intent, then it describes a world very different from reality. The ancient authors probably believed in a flat disc world, floating on an ocean, with a rigid dome (the firmament) that contained all of the stars above it.

McCann's general argument for Genesis, is that it is true, but that the meaning may not be exactly clear. It's somewhere between a figurative and a literal interpretation. It does at least appear to be an attempt to incorporate knowledge learned through science into his understanding of the Bible. To start off, consider this passage, discussing the initial creation of Earth.

Both the earth and its now dead moon had passed through fire, and though cooling, the earth's crust was still hot and there were fires in its heart. The moon had no "atmosphere" but science tells us that on the surface of the earth were great masses of steaming, hissing, boiling vapor, turbulent vortices of clouds miles in depth. No light could penetrate this stormy curtain. Such is the record of science. See how it agrees with the Bibleâ€" AND THE EARTH WAS VOID AND EMPTY, AND DARKNESS WAS UPON" THE FACE OF THE DEEP; AND THE SPIRIT OF GOD MOVED OVER THE WATERS. The surface of the earth was indeed a waste of waters. (McCann 293)

Moving on to the next page, here's how he explains the 'Let there be light' scripture.

Now, and now only could there be question of light on the face of the earth. The condensation of the great zone of vapor that had encompassed this watery world made possible at last the first admission of light. At this same point, too, the Scripture makes its first mention of light : AND GOD SAID : BE LIGHT MADE. AND LIGHT WAS MADE." (McCann 294)

Of course, the story in Genesis still hasn't said that the Sun was created, so the light mentioned above couldn't be coming from the Sun. Here's how McCann explained where the light came from.

According to the Bible the sun had not been created when the first light appeared. Science, with no thought of supporting the Bible, but with many demands that the Bible should be broken down, tells us that the first light consisted of the faint, luminous glow of the nebular masses which were in no sense fiery planets or suns. (McCann 294)

He still hasn't explained how there could be day and night without a sun, but he'll get to that in a couple pages.

Here's a sentiment that is very common to hear even today from people who interpret Genesis rather liberally.

Why did Moses speak of "light" before he spoke of the sun, unless he had some vision of the pre-solar globe which so many centuries later was advanced by so many nebular hypotheses? One would assume that Moses anticipated the criticism that "science and religion are out of harmony with each other," by providing this profoundly subtle chronology of the principal events of creation. (McCann 295)

I guess this is a good a place as any to say that the Earth wasn't formed before the Sun. Wikipedia has a decent summary of the history of our Solar System. A cloud of gas and dust began to collapse under its own gravity. Most of the matter collected in a hot ball of gas in the center - our nascent Sun. As this system continued to evolve (obviously, this isn't biological evolution), the cloud collapsed into a disc (this is just a simple consequence of the physics involved), and the pressure in the central ball became high enough that it began to fuse elements, becoming a true star. The matter in the disc began coalescing under gravity, forming the planets. So obviously, the Earth is younger than the Sun, making McCann's 'profoundly subtle chronology' just plain wrong.

McCann finally gets around to explaining 'day' and 'night' in Genesis, but his argument seems to contradict the story.

The probability is that this light, distinguishing day from night, even though faintly diffused through the mists, originated not with the solar nebula, but in the sun itself, for the reason that the glow by this time was more pronounced upon one side of the revolving earth than upon the other, so that the contrast of night was sufficiently denned to draw a line between the two. Had the light not come from the sun the nebular glow doubtless would have been equal in both hemispheres and there could have been no division between day and night. (McCann 296)

If day and night had to come from the sun itself, then what was the story referring to as day and night in the first three days of creation?

I've also made an issue previously about the language in Genesis referring to, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." Here's how McCann rationalized it.

Between the canopy of the clouds through which the light was diffused with increasing brightness, and the ocean that hitherto had covered the earth, there henceforth existed what the translator has rendered by the English word 'the firmament. ' It was the atmospheric space between the two worlds of water. " (McCann 297 - quoting Husslein)

Here, McCann tries to justify plants existing before the Sun.

Professor Lorande Loss Woodruff, referring to the appearance of plant life upon the earth before the sun could shine through the mists, mentions the existence of life elements upon the earth " before the atmospheric vapors admitted a regular supply of sunlight."

There seems to be no doubt in the minds of scientific men that plants and trees flourished upon the earth under such conditions. Not only is Woodruff of this opinion ("The Evolution of the Earth," p. 105) but John Smyth ("Genesis and Science," p. 40) says: "The plants and trees composing the carboniferous strata may have flourished luxuriously on the margin of shallow seas long before the sun deserved the name of a great light." (McCann 298)

This is ludicrous. Plants obtain their energy from photosynthesis - the Sun. It's possible that some life forms could exist on more feeble energy sources (such as at hydrothermal vents), but there is no way that there would have been luxurious forests, particularly on the scale of those that existed during the Carboniferous.

Here's another example of McCann spinning off into absurd statements based on a false base.

How did Moses know what the scientists now admit? How did Moses know light existed in the universe before the sun, moon and stars beamed upon the earth from the heavens? Why did Moses do the very thing that he never could have been expected to do had he received no divine revelation of the truth, when he reported the creation of plant life before mentioning, even remotely, the sun, the moon and the stars? Why did he begin with the creation of light and then go on in a humanly inexplicable line of scientific sequence, arriving at plants and trees before making any reference to the celestial bodies? (McCann 298-299)

What does this say about Moses considering that plants definitely came into existence long after the Sun?

Now here's a passage that Ken Hamm could be proud of.

" 'Now here we have another agreement between the Scriptural and scientific accounts, for the evolutionists will certainly not deny that zoological life seems first of all to have originated in the sea ; that it was preceded by the appearance of vegetable life ; that fishes did come before birds and that the gigantic saurians - which it is suggested may have been intended by the Hebrew word commonly but probably incorrectly translated "whales" - were a very remarkable feature of the period of geological time at which we have now arrived, since some of them attained a length of at least fifty feet. It has also been pointed out that it is somewhat remarkable that the writer, of course unfamiliar with science, should have grouped birds with fishes and not with mammals, which would have seemed more natural. Yet in doing so he is acting quite correctly.' " ("The Church and Science," pp. 181, 182). (McCann 300 - quoting Windle)

McCann is trying to put dinosaurs into the Bible, saying that the writers used a word that's been translated as 'whale'. It's about like modern creationists claiming that the 'leviathan' was a dinosaur.

This is yet another example of McCann displaying ignorance of something that he should have known better.

It should again be understood, on the chronological hypothesis, which, as we have seen, is but one method of interpreting the narrative of the Creation, that as Genesis is not intended for a detailed scientific account, so science in its turn has only the most fragmentary records to offer. Thus it is stated that the fossils of reptiles are found before those of birds; it does not follow that reptiles actually preceded the birds in the order of direct creation or of evolution. The earliest birds, more delicate in structure, might more readily have been destroyed so that fossil traces could not be found of them. Here our knowledge is so utterly inadequate. Hence there could be no question, on such a supposition, of affirming any contradiction. We have but begun our discoveries, and we shall never be able scientifically to establish all the data for the beginnings of life. (McCann 301)

I've mentioned this previously, but archaeopteryx was definitely known in McCann's time. What better evidence does he want of birds evolving from reptiles? In the time since McCann, we've learned much more about bird evolution, particularly in the last few decades from the fossil beds of Liaoning, China. Researchers have found terrestrial dinosaurs with feathers, and early birds that were originally mistaken for terrestrial dinosaurs. There's really no longer any serious doubt that birds are just flying dinosaurs, that evolved from non-flying dinosaur ancestors.

Here are some links to more info (yes, I gave these links in a previous installment of this series).

More info on Liaoning

Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

McCann didn't call it the 'Cambrian Explosion', but this appears very similar to the argument many modern creationists use.

"One other fact must still be stated here, and that is that the rocks of the earth themselves bear no direct evidence of any evolution. The various types, even among the early invertebrates in the Cambrian formation, appear 'clearly separated into all the families and most of the classes which exist at present.' The same is true of the vertebrates. The fishes in the lower Silurian formation appear just as clearly separated from the invertebrates. ' There are numerous quite different types existing, but separate from the beginning.' " (McCann 302 - quoting someone else)

Not all phyla appeared in the Cambrian. Some predated it, and others didn't appear until later. And the Cambrian 'explosion' was only relatively rapid on a geologic scale. It still happened over millions to tens of millions of years.

Talk Origins Index to Creationist Claims, #CC300

This sounds like it could have come straight from Of Pandas and People (of Dover fame, noted for the mention of "cdesign proponentsists").

"All that we can say is that the various clearly distinct species appear abruptly in their geological layers, as definitely characterized types. Sir William Dawson quite correctly writes ("Modern Ideas of Evolution") " 'The compound eyes and filmy wings of insects the teeth, bones and scales of batrachians and fishes all are as perfectly finished, and many quite as complete and elegant as in the animals of the present day. . . . (McCann 302 - quoting somebody else)

Just for reference, here's a passage from page 22 of Of Pandas and People.

Instead, fossil types are fully formed and functional when they first appear in the fossil record. For example, we don't find creatures that are partly fish and partly something else, leading gradually, in the dozens of characteristics which they exhibit, to today's fish. Instead, fish have all the characteristics of today's fish from the earliest known fish fossils, reptiles in the record have all the characteristics of present-day reptiles, and so on.

I could point to placoderms as an example of primitive fish that didn't have true teeth and jaws, but you don't even need to rely on fossils. Just look at lampreys and hagfish for surviving animals that don't have all the hallmarks of what are normally considered vertebrates.

Once more, McCann goes off on a point based on his erroneous assumptions.

For the present it suffices to have pointed out what agreement there exists between the facts of science and the actual sequence of creative acts in the order in which we find them recorded in the Scripture. The comparison draws from Col. Turton the following striking remarks: 'The points of agreement between Genesis and science are far too many and far too unlikely to be due to accident. They are far too many; for the chances against even eight events put down in their correct order by guesswork is 40,319 to 1. And they are far too unlikely ; for what could have induced an ignorant man (i. e., ignorant of modern science) to say that light came before the sun or that the earth once existed without any dry land." (McCann 304)

In regards to this chapter as a whole, I think there's a rather interesting point it shows. McCann here was trying to reconcile the Bible with knowledge gained through science. He was trying to read Genesis figuratively to match up with what was then (supposedly) the consensus on how the Earth was formed. Many people today do the same thing, and say, just like McCann, that it demonstrates that the Bible writers must have known a thing or two about the true history of Earth, because there's no other way they would have been able to write what they did. But take a look at what McCann thought was the history of Earth, compared to our much more accurate understanding today (it's still cloudy, especially the further into the past you go, but we keep building more and more confidence). McCann's idea of the history of the Earth is clearly wrong, and very different from what actually happened. But if the true meaning of Genesis is supposedly so clear, how is it possible that he could interpret it so differently from modern day theistic evolutionists? And if it's so easy to shoe-horn Genesis to fit whatever creation story you can come up with, does it really show insight on the part of its writer? Or rather, is it just flowery verse coupled with a creative interpretation on the part of modern readers?

Chapter 25

Chapter 25 is a kind of continuation of Chapter 24, but instead focuses on humans, being titled "The Evidence of Man". To be honest, there weren't any quotes from that chapter that really caught my eye. I'm sure I could have found a few decent ones to pull out if I'd tried hard enough, but honestly, do you really think this review needs to be any longer? Besides, most of the material is very similar to material from elsewhere in the book, and I've already covered repetitious topics enough, so there's really no need to cover it yet again.

Proceed to Chapter 26

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 23

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 23, Evolution Upside Down.

Now here's an understatement.

Yet, when we come to man, the contradictions are baffling. If the descent of color in the cross between the negro and the white man followed the law of Mendel, the offspring of two first-cross mulattoes would be one black, two mulattoes, one white. But this is notoriously not so. The riddle is unanswerable though some day science may, with further knowledge of the chromosomes, throw light upon it. (McCann 278-279)

Science certainly has thrown a bit of light on genetics. Not all traits are as simplistic as the classic examples from Mendel's experiments. First of all, most genes don't have only two variants (known as alleles). For example, there are 70 different alleles controlling bloodtype, even though it only results in either A, B, or O types.

Many traits are also controlled by more than a single gene, and often, genes will have an effect on multiple traits, not just one. Using McCann's case of skin color, at least 4 genes are responsible for skin tone in humans, all with multiple alleles.

Immediately following the above passage was this.

Worthy of expression is the thought that an ape chromosome in the human cell would manifest even a recessive character somewhere along the line of countless millions of human creatures, yet even the most degenerate savages are singularly free from the slightest superficial resemblance to any simian trait or character which science has been able to identify. (McCann 279)

To begin with, I think there's more that a 'slight superficial resemblance' between humans and the other apes. Compare these two pictures, focusing on the anatomy from the neck down.

Bonobo body with Face Visible
Man with Face Visible

Here's another example of a photo showing just how similar chimps are to humans.

If you want to talk about other simian traits humans have, just consider atavistic tails. Why would humans have all the genetic 'programming' required to make a tail if it wasn't inherited from an ancestor that did have a tail?

Now new information!

Evolution, as the world has been taught to accept it, demands the acquisition of NEW CHARACTERS, though science now proves that if there is any evolution at all it consists in the LOSS of old characters. (McCann 279)

I've already used these examples a few times in previous installments to this series, but just to repeat, Richard Lenski's experiment, where e. coli developed mutations that gave them the ability to digest a new food source (citrate), is certainly an example of evolution producing a 'new character'. And I'll once again link to an article by Richard Dawkins, The Information Challenge, which explains the processes of how information can be added to the genome.

Now here's a good, testable idea - that foxes couldn't be bred into dogs.

On the subject of man's origin in the monkey Bateson is peculiarly silent, yet he is very positive in identical instances. Here are his words: "We see no changes in progress around us in the contemporary world which we can imagine likely to culminate in the evolution of forms distinct in the larger sense. By intercrossing dogs, jackals, and wolves new forms of these types can be made, some of which may be species, but I see no reason to think that from such material a fox could be bred in indefinite time or that dogs could be bred from foxes" - or men from monkeys! (McCann 285)

Now, a fox can't be bred into a dog exactly. They're distinct species that can't interbreed. But, could a fox be bred into a dog-like animal?

A Russian researcher, Dmitri Belyaev, performed an experiment to test this very question (he had to disguise his experiment as a test on physiology due to the Soviet Union's dogmatic rejection of natural selection). In the '50s, Belyaev started out with a population of silver foxes from a fur farm. In each generation, he picked the tamest foxes to sire the next generation. The experiment has now run for over 30 generations, and the population has changed markedly. Behaviorally, they are very friendly to humans, even whining to get attention. Physically, their development has changed, from opening their eyes earlier, to exhibiting hormonal changes later in life. More striking were changes in coat color (some having spotted coats), floppy ears, and rolled tails. In short, Belyaev bred foxes to be very similar to dogs.

As Charles Darwin pointed out 150 years ago, artificial selection is very much the same as natural selection (and thanks to advances since then, we now know even more). There's random mutation to the DNA of individuals, and some factor that causes certain individuals to be more successful than others, having more offspring and passing on their DNA, which is further changed with new mutations.

For more information, here is a brief summary of Belyaev's experiment, and here is a much more detailed summary.

Proceed to Chapters 24 & 25

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 21 & 22

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 21, St. Augustine; St. Thomas and Chapter 22, Twelve Earthy Salts.

Chapter 21

A common creationist tactic these days is to ask, 'Were you there?' in regard to discussions of an ancient planet. This passage from McCann certainly reminds me of this tactic.

Professor Osborn does not know. Mr. Bryan does not know. St. Augustine did not know. Nobody ever knew. Each of us is permitted to speculate to our heart's content but none of us may ask another to accept an inference as a FACT. St. Augustine himself has no power to command acceptance of his suggested theory of evolution. (McCann 268)

Just for reference, here's the Talk Origins response to these types of arguments. I've also covered it in detail in my essay, Confidence in Historical Knowledge. Basically, we infer the truth through evidence, no matter where the evidence comes from. This is how we determine the truth of anything, not just past events. After all, it's not as if anybody has seen the Earth orbiting the Sun, but all the evidence certainly indicates that it does. Direct observation is certainly not a requirement for considering something true (and given the cognitive biases we're prone to, direct observation isn't always even a suitable condition for considering something true).

Chapter 22

I'd be rather hesitant to cite Arthur Conan Doyle in discussions on superstition.

Even H. G. Wells limits his bold assurances concerning man's origin to man's body. He avoids discussion of the origin of man's soul, as if the soul might not be mentioned among intellectuals for fear of incurring the charge of superstition, yet A. Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, and a host of others classified as intellectuals suffer no timidity when, as spiritists, they proceed to their demonstrations of the survival of the soul after the body and the persistence of life beyond the here into the hereafter. (McCann 269)

The Cottingley Fairy incident certainly hasn't helped Doyle's reputation in these matters. I also wouldn't be including seances as evidence for an afterlife, when so many mediums have been shown to be frauds taking money from people in distress (or, at the very least, convinced of what they were doing based on very poor evidence).

McCann even had an early version of the tornado in a junkyard creating a 747.

If the living body, after death, is reduced to these twelve earthy salts, it certainly does follow that it was composed of them, but it does not follow that it came into existence out of them spontaneously. Otherwise a ship which is wrecked and broken up into firewood should have no orderly design or efficient workmanship behind it, but rather should have sprung into existence automatically out of a lumber pile. (McCann 269-270)

These arguments are just silly. Nobody suspects that the first life was very complex at all - just complex enough to self replicate. And there are plenty of hypotheses as to how it could have come about. I'll just direct readers to Talk Origins on this one.

Ah - an argument from consequences.

The Soulless THING!

Confronting the phenomenon of free will, they are obliged either to admit the existence of the soul or to deny free will entirely. They argue that: psychical energy is merely mechanical energy and thoughts are nothing more than the movement of atoms. It is futile, therefore, to struggle against crime on the ground that the exercise of free will, which doesn't exist, can make choice between good and evil. There is no good or evil, they say, but whatever they say there is much evidence to prove that the idea of the futility of struggle against crime flows naturally out of contempt for the soul and free will.

If man regards himself as nothing more than a highly developed ape and is convinced that he must inevitably yield to the impulses inherited from the ape, however gross, it is not difficult for him to find comfortable justification for any act or any crime that he can commit without discovery. (McCann 270-271)

First of all, consequences have no bearing on the truth of an idea. For example, nuclear weapons may be terrible, and the suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been horrible, but nobody would ever think those bad consequences are an indication that nuclear physics is wrong.

Second, I've never understood this line of argument. As far as morality, it doesn't matter where we came from, but what we are. We know our actions have an effect on the others around us, and we know that others experience feelings just like us, so that's why we try to behave in a way that doesn't harm others.

McCann also underestimates the morality of our fellow apes. This time, I'll link readers to a different article from Frans de Wall, Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior.

The issue of free will, though, is an interesting question, as is how our understanding of it should affect laws and how to treat criminals. But first, people have to define what they actually mean by free will. Surprisingly, I seldom see people present a cogent definition that doesn't rely on intuition.

Definitions aside, we have to ask ourselves if the purpose of courts and jails is strictly for punishment and vengeance, or if the ultimate goal is a safe society. I would go with the latter, which makes the justification for jails clear even if free will is only an illusion. If people behave violently, you must isolate them from the rest of the population to keep society safe. If the threat of being jailed acts as a deterrent, then that's an additional method by which they safeguard society.

There's actually a very interesting discussion of this issue at the website* Why Evolution Is True, in the entry titled Free will, the brain, and the law.

There's not much significance to this quote, except that I think 'monkeyfied' is pretty funny.

Of course if there is no God, and no soul, and no free will, and nothing but a monkeyfied descent from the lemur, then it follows that conscience itself is a mere movement of atoms; that it cannot hold in check man's greed or his lust, his passions or his nameless instincts. (McCann 271)

This doesn't make logical sense. Even if free will were necessary, you have to jump from free will to a soul, and then even worse, from free will to a god. How does McCann make a god a necessary precondition for the existence of souls?

The following reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA - non-overlapping magisteria.

Science admits that it can find no cause of life existing upon this earth. Philosophy interrupts to remind science that the cause of life is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one, and that the cause of life must be looked for outside the earth. The creation of matter, the creation of life and the creation of the mind of man, of his intelligent soul, are not zoological problems. (McCann 274)

This stance has always bothered me. Practically nothing is outside of scientific investigation, especially those questions that have objectively true answers (for subjective answers, science can at least give us statistics on how many people feel a certain way about something, or inform our decisions with the full facts). If we threw up our hands in the air every time something seemed too mysterious and left it up to the philosophers, we wouldn't know a thing about quantum physics or dark matter. (I've covered this issue of science being the best method of answering objective questions in the entry, 'Scientific' Facts.)

The origin of life definitely happened somehow. There's an objectively true answer to how it happened, meaning that it's open to scientific investigation. Philosophers can still ponder what the significance of the origin of life might be, but their ponderings are baseless if they're not grounded in evidence.

*According to practically everyone else, Why Evolution Is True would be called a blog. But its author, Jerry Coyne, insists on calling it a website.


Proceed to Chapter 23

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 20

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 20, An Osborn Letter.

Perhaps this has something to do with McCann's seeming personal vendetta against Osborn.

Professor Osborn himself, in a letter to the editor of the New York Globe, June 1, 1921, gave a demonstration of his method of creating impressions at the expense of truth. He said: "The American Museum of Natural History and the Hall of the Age of Man, to which Alfred W. McCann refers, scrupulously avoid presenting theories and rest on the solid ground of well ascertained facts. This is why this Hall is sought not only by scientists from all parts of the world and by the rising generation of scientific men and women, but also by religious teachers who come here to see what Nature has thus far revealed concerning man's past history." (McCann 248-249)

Here McCann's still quoting Osborn's letter. The modern Clergy Letter Project (and its associated Evolution Weekend is definitely in this spirit.

"From time to time I see parties of clergymen of different denominations studying what this Hall exhibits of our past life. The spiritual value of the emergence of the Cro-Magnon race, many thousands of years ago, with its deep religious sentiments, is one of the greatest discoveries of modern times relating to the spiritual development of man. It is so regarded by all teachers and writers who are keeping up to date in the progress of discovery and human thought." (McCann 249 - quoting Osborn)

McCann made several mistakes here when discussing convergence.

Osborn's own evidence of convergence explains the "resemblance" of whales to fish, although whales are not fish at all, but true mammals. Changing their fore-limbs (arms) into fins (paddles) and their hind-limbs into nothingness the whales have converged ever more and more in external features toward true fishes with whom they are not at all related while they themselves have remained true mammals. Why does Professor Osborn withhold the suggestion that apes, despite their superficial convergence in externals toward a fantastic resemblance to man, remain nevertheless true apes? The writer frankly admits that convergence explains nothing, adds nothing and takes nothing away when any theory of evolution based on natural selection is under discussion. Why has the giraffe, for instance, not converged toward the elephant? If natural selection explains the long neck of the giraffe for high browsing purposes why would an extension of its nose, like the extension of the nose of the elephant, not have been better? Why has no other hoofed quadruped acquired a long neck and a lofty stature besides the giraffe? Why has the camel not acquired a proboscis like the elephant? Why is the elephant alone the beneficiary of a proboscis? Why has the elephant no neck at all? If natural selection is a freakish, whimsical, capricious handmaiden of evolution it ceases to be natural selection and becomes merely bizarrish selection. (McCann 253-254)

First of all, whales are only superficially similar to fish. A look at their anatomy, from mammary glands to lungs, shows them to be quite clearly mammals. Apes and humans, on the other hand, are not merely superficially similar. The similarities go right down to the bone. We can catch many of the same diseases that other types of mammals don't. Even Linnaeus, who was a creationist himself, classified humans as apes when he came up with his system.

McCann once again made the mistake of assuming teleology in evolution. There are no goals. A long neck may work for giraffes, but it doesn't mean that other animals will attempt to copy that strategy, or that evolution will strive towards long necks. The 'strategies' come about by chance, and are honed through natural selection.

There are many strategies that evolution can take, and some are 'easier' than others. For example, simply growing longer or shorter limbs is an easy adaptation. It only takes a few mutations. So, you'll see many animals with elongated necks, from giraffes, to llamas, to geese, to the now extinct baluchitherium. A prehensile nose is not a simple adapation. It's a fairly complex limb that takes many, many mutations to develop. So, you'd expect it to be a lot less common than long necks. And even though elephants may have the most developed prehensile nose, they aren't the only animals with one. Tapirs have a short prehensile nose, and there's evidence that some extinct animals also had one.

Organisms are also constrained by the laws of physics. The reason why cetaceans, fish, and ichtyosaurs look superficially similar, is because that's the shape it takes to be hydrodynamic. Physics explains why flying animals tend to have high aspect ratio wings. It's just what works.

Here, McCann discusses variation.

The vagueness and confusion provoked by the giraffe is set forth by Sir Charles Lyell, who so greatly influenced Darwin. He says ("Antiquity of Man," 1863, pp. 410-411): "Lamarck when speculating on the origin of the long neck of the giraffe imagined that quadruped to have stretched himself up in order to reach the boughs of lofty trees until by continued efforts and longing to reach higher he obtained an elongated neck. Darwin and Wallace simply supposed that, in a season of scarcity, a longer-necked variety survived the others and transmitted its peculiarity to its successors. Every naturalist admits that there is a general tendency in animals and plants to vary; but it is usually taken for granted that there are certain limits beyond which each species cannot pass under any circumstances or in any number of generations. (Here you have a law which is not bizarrish.) Darwin and Wallace say that the oppositive hypothesis, which assumes that every species is capable of varying indefinitely from its original type, is not a whit more arbitrary. We have no right, they say, to assume, should we find that a variable species can no longer be made to vary in a certain direction, that it has reached the utmost limits to which it might, if more time were allowed, be made to diverge from the parent type."

Perhaps in another million of years the giraffe will have twice as much neck as he now has and the elephant less neck than none at all, and a proboscis tremendously extended. Perhaps! (McCann 254-255)

Darwin and Wallace had it right. Why should it be 'taken for granted that there are certain limits beyond which each species cannot pass under any circumstances or in any number of generations'? Especially now that we understand genetics, we know there are no stop signs in our chromosomes. McCann's idea reeks of Platonic idealism.

McCann continued to harp on marsupials, which he discussed in the previous chapter.

Why, let us repeat, through these millions of years, have they remained marsupials, although Australia has presented opportunities for the most diverse modes of existence? Why, if not because the marsupials present a real type which varies in form but is not abandoned? There is an overwhelming body of proof that certain basal forms are firmly retained and that the whole theory of evolution from, a common ancestor must be completely abandoned. Certainly the marsupials have had time and opportunity for the full development of their maximum evolutional capacity. Why, then, through all these millions of years, have the limits to such evolutional capacity been so sharply defined? (McCann 256)

Once again, he thinks in teleological terms, or in the Ladder of Progress. There is no goal for evolution. There is no reason why marsupials should be expected to evolve into placental mammals.

The earliest mammals laid eggs, which isn't surprising, considering that it's the primitive form of reproduction for all tetrapods. Some mammals, the monotremes, still lay eggs. At some point, obviously, mammals began giving birth to live young. This also isn't a big deal, considering how many other animals also practice vivipary. It probably started simply by allowing the eggs to develop inside the mother without laying them. Now, the exact relationship between marsupials and placental mammals is a bit murky, but there are two probable scenarios. Either placental mammals evolved from marsupials, or they both evolved independently from that lineage of mammals where the mothers retained their eggs.

Recall from an earlier discussion in this series, where I said that some evolutionary strategies are more difficult to evolve than others. Simply retaining eggs to develop inside a mother is fairly simple, so it's seen in multiple lineages. A placenta, on the other hand, is not so easy to develop. For us mammals, in fact, it looks we owe the placenta to a viral infection. Endogenous retroviruses are those viruses that have managed to get their DNA incorporated into the genome of a population (by infecting germ cells). Many of the genes used that help protect a fetus from the mother's immune system are from endogenous retroviruses. Considering the circumstances involved, you would expect that this is a pretty rare way for animals to acquire genes, so it's not surprising that marsupials haven't independently evolved a placenta.

But just because marsupials haven't evolved a placenta, it doesn't mean that they've remained 'primitive'. In the hundred million years or so since our lineages have diverged, marsupials have gone on evolving, as well. Just look at the diversity of life forms in Australia. And, as should be expected, they've evolved some of their own unique characteristics that are absent from us placental mammals (for example, us humans haven't evolved the ability to glide like sugar gliders). Every animal can only build on the innovations that arose in its ancestors, not innovations that arose in its cousins. There is no single most evolved animal.

Proceed to Chapters 21 & 22

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 19

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 19, Evolution in a Muddle.

Biogeography is one of the greatest bits of evidence for evolution. It really is strange to see McCann try to twist it to cast doubt on evolution.

This we know: the American opossum is a form of marsupial life now found only in America. It exists in lonely isolation in the midst of a vast continent abounding in non-marsupial forms of mammalian life. All other marsupials live together in one mass in all but complete isolation from non-marsupial beasts, yet the American opossum singularly upsets all the inferences that the evolutionist who demands progress would draw, if he could, from these baffling facts of natural history. (McCann 235)

Immediately following, we see a strange jump (well, not so strange when you understand that pride is one of the reasons many creationists don't want to accept evolution) from marsupial evolution to human evolution.

Whence came the opossum? How did it get to North America? Why didn't it bring along the kangaroos and other marsupials of Australia? Why didn't the Australian marsupials include the American opossum in the general family? Who knows? Who will ever know? These questions are precisely like those which one must ever ask when examining the strange theories of man's ape-origin. (McCann 235 - 236)

After going on for a few pages about this problem with opossums, McCann answers his own question, although he doesn't seem to know it.

Why were Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Haeckel and the rest so significantly silent with respect to the opossum? Why have the foremost evolutionists of this generation maintained similar silence? They have never lacked the knowledge that the marsupials, or pouched mammals, flourished during what is described as the Secondary epoch, and that the opossum, even though its first relics were found in the so-called Tertiary rocks under Paris, is really a true marsupial, and therefore originated with all the other marsupials in the Secondary epoch. (McCann 236)

The distribution of marsupials is a strong bit of evidence for evolution. First, recall that the history of life on this planet involves both time and place. Marsupials and placental mammals both evolved around the same time, but not in the same regions. Marsupials had a chance to colonize Australia before Australia split off from Asia and Antarctica, but placental mammals didn't. Therefore, for a very long time, the only mammals in Australia were marsupials and monotremes, monotremes being an even more ancient branch on the mammal family tree. Marsupials weren't limited to just Australia, however - they were living in other nearby parts of the world before Australia became isolated, and so had a chance to spread to the rest of the world.

For some reason, placental mammals fared better than marsupials wherever they came into contact, and most marsupials became extinct as placental mammals spread. But there's no rule saying that all marsupials had to go extinct - it was just the trend. So, it's not surprising to find some marsupials still surviving among placental mammals, such as opposums. But, because the placental mammals didn't have the chance to colonize Australia before it became isolated, Australia's marsupials flourished. The first placental mammals that did get a chance to colonize Australia were bats - blown in on the wind. Rats, surviving on driftwood, were the next placental colonists. But outside of bats and rats, no other placental mammals lived in Australia until the arrival of humans and their livestock.

The present distribution of marsupial and placental mammals makes perfect sense considering the evolutionary and geologic history.

Man, talk about arrogance.

Why does man alone make progress and why does such progress as he does make have nothing to do with his body? All beasts have bodies, yet if there is one beast-characteristic concerning which we are certain, it is that no beast makes progress of any kind whatsoever. (McCann 237)

I've already mentioned this in previous installments, but I wonder what McCann would have thought of current studies of chimps - their tool use and cultures.

This is either a case of gross ignorance, or deliberate misrepresentation, since I know archaeopteryx was known in McCann's time. After a whole discussion of bird evolution, and wondering what an intermediate form might have looked like, how could McCann have not even mentioned archaeopteryx, at least in an attempt to refute it?

What kind of a reptile could have been the ancestor of the turkey? Not a rattlesnake, of course, or any such reptile form. We must find something special, so we attempt to smooth out the difficulty by insisting that the line of descent from reptiles to birds has not been from ordinary reptiles, through pterodactyl-like forms, to ordinary birds, but to the birds without keels on the breast-bone from certain extinct reptiles such as the Dinosauria.

One of the best known of these Dinosauria is the Iguanodon of the Wealden formation. The skeletal characters of these Dinosauria are wholly unlike those of ordinary birds, but in certain points they manifest resemblances to the osseous structure of such birds as the ostrich, rhea, emeu, cassowary, apteryx, dinornis, etc. These resemblances are quite as marked toward each other as are the resemblances, heretofore referred to, between the skeleton of the horse and the skeleton of man. (McCann 238)

Actually, his last sentence was very telling. Horses and humans have very similar skeletons because we're both mammals. We're not the most closely related mammals, but our skeletons are still more similar to each other than, say, to a frog. The fact that a turkey and an iguanodon have very similar skeletons is a strong indication that birds are just another type of dinosaur. If you look at other types of dinosaurs, particularly the theropods, and narrowing it down further to the maniraptoran theropods, you see quite a few similarities. In fact, there are so many similarities, that it gets a bit murky trying to determine the whole genealogy. One archaeopteryx specimen was even originally mistaken for a Compsognathus theropod by the amateur collector who found it.

Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

Now McCann has made it personal! (or, as personal as an attack can be by a dead man, directed at a person who wasn't even born when the attacker died, and at a field that was still in its infancy).

Nothing could be so inefficient as the aerial navigation of 1921. There is more power in a 1921 airplane than was in the sails of a whole flotilla of frigates a hundred years ago. The stupendous power of the aerial motor has given us sensational results quickly, so that the problems of flight have been actually disregarded. Man's flight depends upon freak devices in which an aviator has at his command a howling volcano. The bird's wing fans the air with a slow motion, three strokes to the second. This slow motion produces high speed in flight, whereas the airplane's propeller has the speed of a rifle bullet with comparatively slow speed of flight. (McCann 243)

Birds do have a few advantages over us human aircraft builders. Their nerves provide them with feedback about the airflow over their entire body, and they can then use their muscles to move their feathers to tweak the airflow. This type of thing would be very difficult to do on an airplane made out of metal, or even with newer composite materials.

Bird also have the advantage, through evolution, of being able to customize the shape of their payload (i.e. their internal organs). Aircraft must be sized to have hollow interiors that can accommodate us humans and our bags.

Aside from those advantages, airplanes are pretty damned good. For example, at cruise speeds, propellers are around 90% efficient at converting energy from the engine into thrust. 90%! I don't care if McCann doesn't like how fast they spin to do it - that's pretty good. Lift to drag ratios of aircraft compare quite well to birds, as well. According to this site, American black vultures have an L/D of 22 (that's the highest I found for a bird in a quick google search). That's just about the same as the B-52, which has an L/D of around 21. More extreme aircraft can do even better than that. The U-2 has an L/D of around 28, and the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer has one of about 37. If you want to get really extreme, sailplanes (i.e. gliders) have lift to drag ratios of around 70.


I know I discussed modern planes above, but even those from the '20s were pretty good. The fact of the matter is that air is so sparse that it makes flying a challenge. You can go to one extreme and be supremely efficient, such as sail planes or albatrosses, or go to the other extreme and expend a lot of energy, such as helicopters or hummingbirds. Most birds and man made flying machines fall somewhere in between, but flight is always more demanding than other forms of travel.

McCann then went on to wax poetic about birds, which I can certainly appreciate. Unfortunately, he went on to show once again, that he doesn't really understand the whole concept of common descent.

As no such thing as a feather is possessed by any other creature except birds, the turkey, which possesses feathers, must be a bird. But birds, we are told, stand midway between reptiles and beasts. All reptiles possess cold blood. All beasts possess warm blood. A reptile's blood may be as low as 60 degrees or 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The blood of beasts approximates 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The blood of birds should come between them, yet the temperature of the turkey is 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus the turkey, which comes between the reptile and the beast, puts the beast between the reptile and the turkey. For that matter so does the barnyard fowl. (McCann 244)

First of all, we now know of other animals besides birds which possessed feathers - dinosaurs. So, possession of feathers is not unique to birds, and can't be used to define an animal as a bird.

'Beast' is not an evolutionary relevant term, but I think we can assume that McCann meant mammals. Still, birds did not evolve from, nor into, mammals, so there's no reason to use mammals as any type of comparison to what you'd expect birds to be like.

This following quote is wrong on a couple levels.

The limbs of beasts and reptiles are variously constructed. There is no resemblance between the structure of the wings of the bat and the scoop of the mole; the paddles of the whale and the foot of the horse, but in birds the hind-limbs are always "walking" legs and the fore-limbs are always wings. (McCann 244)

No resemblance between bat wings and mole legs? What is he talking about? Here are images of the skeletons of both a mole and a bat (stolen from Meriam Webster's 's Visual Dictionary Online).

Mole Skeleton

Bat Skeleton

Now, they're both highly specialized limbs, but the similarities are obvious. Both have a humerus that starts at the shoulder, a radius and ulna that go from the elbow to the wrist (the ulna is extremely reduced in the bat), several carpal bones in the hand, and then five fingers going out from there. Obviously, from looking at birds and insects, there's no reason wings have to look like bat wings. The reason is that because of evolution, they're limited by their ancestry.

Regarding his last sentence, hasn't McCann ever heard of Kiwis, penguins, or ostriches? They have 'wings' in the same sense that whales have arms. It's obvious from the homology, but it's also obvious that they no longer serve the same function.

Ah, I see McCann has heard of archaeopteryx, but I'm not sure if he's really studied it. Just consider these two paragraphs, with nothing omitted.

Is the turkey reptile, beast or bird? All beasts and reptiles have teeth except ant-eaters, turtles and terrapins, yet no bird has teeth. The many thousands of species of animals, with three lonely exceptions, have teeth, yet of the twelve thousand species of birds not one has teeth. How comes it that these toothless birds have descended from toothed reptiles?

In Miocene times, although the parrot lived in Europe, the turkey did not. The evidence indicates that it was confined to America. The Archeopteryx, found, 1861, in oolitic strata in Bavaria, is generally looked upon as the oldest of all the extinct birds. It, too, differed from all other birds. Instead of having a stubby, fleshy, nosey pad of bone and flesh for a tail, it possessed a real tail containing twenty bones, from each of which two long feathers projected. (McCann 245)

How can he make the categorical statement that no birds have teeth, and then in the very next paragraph discuss archaeopteryx? Did he even look at the fossil?

Again, with the arrogance.

The broad indisputable fact stands out beyond dispute that no species of animal, save man only, makes progress. Progress results from the exercise of a rational intelligence, free choice and free will. Man alone possesses these attributes of man. (McCann 246)

We may be the most technological animal, but we're not the only one who makes tools. Once again, I'll direct readers to Frans de Waal's article in the New York Times.

Proceed to Chapter 20


Selling Out