(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
One specific creationist religious belief whose origins I have been curious about is the bizarre argument that is advanced by anti-evolution religious people about how the lack of transitional fossils is undermining the theory of evolution. This argument mystifies scientists because of course there are huge numbers of such fossils. The evidence is incontrovertible. In fact, every living or fossilized organism can also be considered a transitional form, since change is constant. It should also be borne in mind that Darwin arrived at his theory without having the wealth of fossils that are now available, basing his arguments largely on biogeography, the similarities in body patterns of animals, embryology, and the existence of vestigial organs. Nowadays, the fossils that keep being found and the relationships that have been discovered between the DNA molecules of species have sealed the case for evolution.
Fossils are extra evidence and the case for evolution would be strong even without them. So why do creationists keep harping on transitional fossils? One reason is because they think that that is their strongest point. They also know that fossils seem more persuasive to the general public because we can actually see them with the naked eye.
But it may be that they are possessed of a deep misconception (like those involving electric current) about how evolution works that prevents them from actually ‘seeing’ the evidence the way that scientists see it. Changing that deep misconception requires a Gestalt-type switch but may prove as hard as getting people to understand that electric current flows in closed loops and is not used up.
A few weeks ago, I had quite a bit of fun with Ray Comfort’s banana argument and with Kirk Cameron’s belief that a transitional fossil is a weird hybrid between two existing species, the latter giving as an example an animal with the head of a crocodile and the body of a duck, which he cleverly calls a ‘crocoduck’. But it appears that I was wrong in crediting him with originating this inspired piece of idiocy. It apparently goes back much further to at least Duane Gish, one of the founders of ‘modern creationism’ (now there’s an oxymoron for you). Biologist Jerry Coyne says he heard Gish give a talk where he showed a cartoon of what he expected a transitional form between a fish and a mammal to look like. It consisted of an animal whose front half was a cow and rear half was a fish. (Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2009, p. 47.) Gish’s message, like Kirk Cameron’s, is “Ha! Ha! These wacky evolutionists may be willing believe such crazy things but we are too smart for that.”
In this case, I think that these religious people have a wrong point of view of species that dooms them from the start. Like the pre-Galilean theorists of motion who thought that the end point of motion was what was important, or that of Platonic idealists who focused on the essential unchanging nature of things, they too make the mistake of starting from the end point.
In the case of biology, this translates into a teleological view that sees all the current species as the end point, the convergence if you will, of a grand plan. Hence the word ‘transitional’ does not mean to them an ancestor of a current species that looks different from anything that we currently see, because such things are inconceivable in their teleological model which sees everything as purpose-driven. For them, such an organism would be unnecessary, not serving any purpose. As long as they have a teleological view of the world with its current life forms being representatives of a Platonic ideal, the very word ‘evolution’ will mean something very different to them from what it means to the rest of us.
So what can a transitional form mean to people with that view? The only transitional forms that they can conceive of are the curious hybrids they keep coming up with, like the crocoduck and the cow-fish. Unfortunately, as I said yesterday, even some of the visual images that we have of the process of evolution, such as the one that draws it as fish→amphibian→monkey→human (with the drawing of each showing what a current typical specimen looks like), reinforce this misconception by suggesting that evolution consists of transitions between forms that currently exist.
When these creationists claim there is lack of fossil evidence of transitional forms, they mean the absence of fossils of these bizarre hybrids. It is clear that people like Gish, Comfort, and Cameron are ‘seeing’ the theory of evolution in a very different way from the way that scientists see it, and this explains why they will keep coming up with theories so outlandish that we are often at a loss to know how to even start to refute them.
Until they make that Gestalt switch and see evolution and transitional forms the way that scientists see it, they are hopelessly lost. The duck, for them, will remain a duck.
Another obstacle to creationists ‘seeing’ evolution will be discussed in the next post.
POST SCRIPT: Science vs. religion debate
Thanks to Machines Like Us, you can see the entire recent debate between Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett on the one hand versus Dinesh D’Souza (Roman Catholic), Shmuley Boteach (Orthodox Jewish rabbi), and Robert Wright (whom I have labeled as a religious atheist) on the other. It was held at the La Ciudad de las Ideas in Mexico.