Saturday, November 24, 2007

Difficulties of the Theory

For starters - yes, I know I'm behind, as it's been a while since the last installment. There are always, it seems, more engaging things to write about. But I did like this chapter, and I'm glad that I finally got around to it.

Natural Selection is a very useful theory for explaining how many sorts of plants and animals came about, but it is not ironclad, and in Chapter VI, Mr. Darwin takes it upon himself to bring up some of the difficulties with the theory, and answer them, at least to his own satisfaction. It should be said that Darwin does not appear to be attempting to change the minds of potential critics, so much as he is making the point that he understands that there are possible rebuttals, and that he has thought about them, and reached some conclusions that prevent the objections raised from being fatal ones. Of course, in modern times we have the science of genetics to show us the potential links between different species. I, for my part, find the idea that genetic similarities between creatures to be tests of our faith, or the result of divine hoaxing, to be unconvincing. But the Creationist (and by extension, pseudo-creationist segment of the Intelligent Design crowd) are always going to have one big thing in their favor - the lack of an absolutely complete fossil record that shows each and every transitional and intermediate form that a given animal may have evolved through. But for those who say that such is needed for Natural Selection to be the least bit credible, I have a simple response - show me the clay. And I leave things at that.

Darwin does point out a number of items, that, if considered true, would put an end to the Theory of Natural Selection. One such idea is that certain plants and animals are beautiful for the enjoyment of either their Creator, or mankind. This was advanced as an explanation of why certain plants and animals have features that cannot be directly seen as contributing to the organism's survival. Darwin cheerfully admits that if you assume that plants and animals were deliberately designed to an exterior standard of beauty, then you can pretty much forget Natural Selection. But Darwin's willingness to predicate Natural Selection on certain assumptions has become somewhat twisted in the intervening century and a half; to the degree that people now claim that Darwin sowed the seeds for the destruction of Natural Selection by making assumptions that modern science has clearly disproved, such as a complete absence of non-cellular life (like bacteria and viruses). This I find particularly interesting - if antibiotic resistance in bacteria isn't a clear and convincing example of Natural Selection in action, I don't know what is.

One of the things that struck me as interesting is that Darwin attempts to answer the question of eyes, which stars in one of the common modern arguments against Natural Selection. How could any series of uncontrolled mutations, over any amount of time, the question goes, produce an eye? For Darwin, the idea that the eye evolved through several stages on its way to the modern forms we see today is perfectly plausible. Obviously, to the other side, it is less believable. And I'm not going to go into all of the details here. But I'm struck by the fact that both Darwin and his modern detractors settled upon the same example. And it does explain one problem of Natural Selection - even a complete fossil record wouldn't show us the exact construction of a dinosaur's eye, any more than it illuminates the structure of the brain.

"It is admitted that the rattlesnake has a poison-fang for its own defence, and for the destruction of its prey; but some authors suppose that at the same time it is furnished with a rattle for its own injury, namely, to warn its prey. I would almost as soon believe that the cat curls the end of its tail when preparing to spring, in order to warn the doomed mouse. It is a much more probable view that the rattlesnake uses its rattle, the cobra expands its frill, and the puff-adder swells whilst hissing so loudly and harshly, in order to alarm the many birds and beasts which are known to attack even the most venomous species."
Charles Darwin
Mr. Darwin caught me off-guard with his prescience in this respect. One can only presume that he would be intensely gratified to learn that modern rattlesnakes are becoming less and less likely to rattle. Birds and beasts, it turns out are less dangerous to rattlers than humans, who are likely to kill snakes that give themselves away by making noise. One wonders if there will come a time when the term "rattlesnake" is a quaint misnomer, wondered about by people who have never heard an actual rattle?

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