Wednesday, July 30, 2008

From T-Rex to Tweety?

One objection to evolution that I hear among my friends (mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly Christian) runs something like this: "I don't have any problems with microevolution. The Creator would have to make animals so that they can adapt. What I do have problems with is evolution from one species to another. I mean, that's just impossible. Look around. You don't see birds turning into monkeys or dogs turning into elephants. It just doesn't happen."

I've been pondering that objection and how to answer it from the scientific evidence, and I've come up with an angle. I'll be interested in feedback on this approach, especially since I'm at the point in the book where I'm going to need to address this issue. My answer to that objection, however, has to do with the massive amounts of time involved in evolution. I know that's a mind-bender for many Christians who come from a young-earth viewpoint. I wonder if time causes the same issue for people form other religions.

To understand how new species develop, I had to look back to the past. You can't look around now. Our short lives (75 or so years) and our short human history (3000-4000 years) don't stretch long enough to see speciation occurring in any way that we will ever be able to say, "Oh, I see a new species over there." Instead, we have to look back over the fossil record to see large periods of time when new species are evolving.

An example of this would be to look back at the end of the dinosaur age to see how animals very different than the dinosaurs evolved from them. As best I understand, it goes something like this: During the time of the dinosaurs, they evolved until they were many kinds of dinosaurs roaming around. One group was the maniraptors, whose wrists were different than those of other dinosaurs. Over a long period of time, this group of dinosaurs got more varied. The fossil record shows that it included Velociraptors and their relatives (of Jurassic Park fame), Oviraptors (who took care of their eggs), the group called Troodontidae (thought to be pretty dang smart for a dinosaur), and birds. That last word, "birds," may be surprising to you. It was to me as I did the research to write this post. I didn't realize that birds were classified right there as members of the dinosaur family. (If you want to know more, take a look at the page on Coelurosauria in the Tree of Life project. That website can be a little tricky to learn how to move around. Make sure to see the "Containing Group" link below the list of species. It's what lets you go backwards, that is earlier along the fossil record.) And, if you look at Birds (technically Aves from the Latin), you'll see that they contain Archaeopteryx, which most people think of as a dinosaur.

So what? Well, back to the original objection. "I've never seen animals evolve!" If I'm reading the fossil record right, here's a time where we see one animal evolving into a very different one. A dinosaur became a bird!

But, the clever reader will realize that the statement I just made--dinosaurs becoming birds--is the wrong way to state it. That's not really what happened at all, according to the fossil record. During the millions and millions of years that dinosaurs were on the earth, they evolved into a huge variety. One small group out of this was what we think of as birds. And, natural selection kicked in here at the end of the age of dinosaurs. When whatever happened to wipe out the dinosaurs occurred, the early birds were different enough that they were able to survive under the new conditions and begin to evolve into the vast variety of birds we have today.

Does that make any sense? The way I see it is that we'll never actually see the macroevolution that many people object to because we live such short lives. But, if we look back over the fossil record, we can see species change into totally different kinds. I don't really expect religious kids to believe that this is how the Creator made birds, but I do want them to see how science explains the fossil record.

By the way, if you want a little challenge, try using the Tree of Life to trace Mammals (i.e. Mammalia) back to find out when they and the dinosaurs diverged from each other. I'll give you a hint--what fluid surrounds a baby during pregnancy? If you find the answer, you should also see where turtles and reptiles split off.

(The T-Rex skull is from the collection of the Lawrence Hall of Science. I took the picture.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Moving slow

My wife and I have both been under the weather over the past couple of weeks; so, I'm moving slow on writing and blogging. I appreciate your patience, and I hope to pick the pace back up soon.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Stay Tuned...

This note gives the last of the Puerto Rico thoughts, but I'm brain-dead after 2 days of writing. I'll get back to this as soon as I can, but maybe you can make some sense of it on your own. (BTW, do people still know today what "Stay Tuned" means, or am I just a relic?)

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Heart Issue

I thought a lot about wonder and awe in Puerto Rico. The beaches of Vieques were truly beautiful, and each had a unique beauty that made them together almost a wonderland. Walking in the Il Yunque rainforest was just as amazing. The first picture here captures some of that majesty. Please don't miss the scale of these plants. They were huge! (The second picture may help you with the scale. If you look in the lower right hand corner, you'll see my wife just walking into view. And she wants to make sure that you all know she's not tall!)

Wonder and awe, for me, is a heart issue. The creation calls out to my heart, "There's a Creator." I know my Christian beliefs do impact what I hear, but it's really the other way around. One of my foundational reasons for being a Christian is because the wonder and awe of creation tells me that there must be a God. "He is here," as C.S. Lewis says. (The second part of Dr. Lewis's quote, the "and He has spoken" is something creation can't do fully.) 

I know, though, that many people who are not religious still sense the wonder and awe of creation. I hear it in things agonstic scientists write about the beauty of the world. I see it in the way non-religious people fight valiantly to preserve the environment. So many of us on both sides of the origins issue see the incredible beauty of this planet, and we're moved deeply by it.

To me, this is the problem with scientific materialism. Dawkins and others out on one end of the argument want to use evolution like a club to beat religion out of our brains. They talk about how science makes it perfectly obvious that the Earth evolved to its present state without a god intervening. But, scientific materialists are missing the heart issue of wonder and awe. Even many non-religious people lift their heads up, look at the beauty all around them, and think to themselves, "There's more." They may not be able to identify it, but they know there's something more than natural processes at work. This Earth is just too amazing! So, I think the question of "How?" just seamlessly morphs into "Who?" for many of us.


I just realized what labels are for in creating blog posts, and I'm starting to use them. The main labels I'll use right now are "heartsNminds" for posts about teaching evolution and "inquiry" for posts on that subject. I hope the labeling helps you find more easily the topics that you're interested in.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Oh yeah...gotta back it up!

Almost lost a day of writing. I started to work on the current chapter, and realized the last day of my writing was missing! Thankfully, I had made a second backup to a thumb drive. My original copy and first back up had failed.

Would it matter?

David and I were talking when we were in Puerto Rico, and we had walked passed the waterfall in the picture. A question he asked got me thinking about young earth creationism. I'd phrase the question as, "If God used evolution to create the earth, but in 6, 24-hour periods, how would we know? Would the scientific evidence show anything different than the 6 billion year history that science talks about?"

Unless I'm way out to lunch on that question, then I'm thinking that the process is the key issue, not the time involved. The real question is the mechanism of creation, not the time involved. So, did God create with a magical zap where things appeared out of thin air? That's the general gist of the way I viewed creation when I was young-earth in my thinking. Or, did he create via the process of developing life slowly and methodically via evolution, with steps indicated by scientific evidence?

If I'm on to anything here, then we should shift the discussion from "How long?" to "How?". "How long?" is a dead end discussion anyway. We've not gotten any closer to resolving that conflict over the past 160 years, and I don't see anything on the horizon that will make resolution any easier. But, the discussion of "How" might be more productive.

Please help me out here with your thoughts. I've got more thoughts from the Puerto Rico trip, including questions about the role of awe and wonder, but I'll hold off on those until we kick the current question around some.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Coming Soon

Been on vacation in Puerto Rico. The beauty of the island of Vieques and the rain forest on the main island have me thinking a lot about evolution. Watch for a post over the next week or so...