Natural selection is cool

Hat tip to the esteemed Tristan Vick for getting me thinking about this topic today.

I was in the mood for an adventure-y flick last night, and came close to watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. But then I found this old DVD of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World that my parents had given me years ago, but I never watched.

I really enjoyed the movie, but my favorite part was the character Stephen Maturin, who is more or less a fictional version of Charles Darwin around the time of the HMS Beagle. He's a naturalist who travels to the Galapagos Islands and discovers natural selection, and he's played by Paul Bettany, who played Darwin in the 2009 film Creation.

There was a sense of wonder in him as he studied the animals, and that's a wonder which I can't help but feel is lost on creationists. And I mean both kinds of creationists – the really deluded young-earth ones, and the quasi-scientific intelligent design ones. Both kinds of creationists yank out the same canards about evolution: "A dog can't produce a non-dog!", as though evolution says anything to the contrary. I think creationists think evolution is supposed to work like this:

1. Animals of the same species produce some hybrid mutated offspring
2. Hybrid mutated offspring somehow survives and reproduces, possibly with other hybrid mutant offspring
3. New species emerges

I mean, the way Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron posited the infamous Crocoduck as proof that evolution is impossible pretty much betrays the sheer nincompoopery of their arguments. Intelligent design advocates aren't any better, because they say that while new species still emerged over millions of years, each little variation was poofed into existence magically.

But back in reality, evolution works more like this:

1. Animals of the same species produce offspring of the same species that have slight genetic variations (they are not exact copies of the parents)
2. These variations accumulate over many hundreds and thousands of generations
3. As populations of species become geographically isolated, the different environments select for different genetic variants
4. Eventually, the differences become great enough that two isolated populations can no longer reproduce with one another, and you have a new species

Of course it's much more complicated than that, but that's the general gist of it. It's amazing. It's fascinating. It's beautiful. And it's a freaking fact supported by over 150 years of evidence from several branches of science including geology, paleontology, genetics and molecular biology. My eyes roll painfully into the back of my head when I hear the old "It's just a theory!" canard, a statement uttered, without fail, by people who have no understanding of the difference between the scientific and colloquial definitions of a theory.

Science is still fighting an uphill battle. Science education in the United States is abysmal, and the campaign of misinformation spread by religious fundamentalists only serves to further confuse an already ignorant public. This year alone, some six state congresses have put anti-evolution legislation on the table. According to a recent Gallup poll, 40% of the American public believes humans were created by God in their current form within the last 10,000 years.

And frankly, the debate just gets tiring. I've had knock-down, drag-out debates about evolution with creationists before, and it's a massively time-consuming and generally futile endeavor. What's the point in arguing with those who aren't amenable to reason? Most people are more concerned with being right than they are with acknowledging the truth. In the end, I've found evolution to be such a powerful, beautiful and fascinating science that I sincerely pity those who live in denial, insisting that their arbitrary interpretation of a ludicrous holy book simply does not allow either for the theory itself or the full breadth of its philosophical implications.

And with that, I'm back to reading Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which is still kicking my ass. This book is long. But man, is it great. I'll be writing about it more very soon.

Oh, and in case you missed it when I posted recently, here's a condensed version of the video about ring species:


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