Evolution: Of Trees and Fish

Suppose I should not be writing this, because it might draw somebody’s attention to the fact that I’m getting the Frankfurter Rundschau each day without having ordered it or paying for it, and after a while I have gotten quite used to it. I still am not the kind of person to read the entire paper, say during breakfast. But I have come to like leafing through real paper in my lunch break, for example. And I tend to find a couple of articles that catch my attention. Sometimes, they make me want to smash my head on the table (oh, and since we no longer have a glass table, I actually could.) Such was today’s interview with author Nicholas Sparks.

Nicholas Sparks in the “Frankfurter Rundschau”

Why read it, you might say, and I suppose I would not have if I had not caught the word evolution. Somewhere close to a picture of Scarlett Johansson, is what I’m guessing the real reason was. Now, I’m still interested in the whole story of evolution vs. intelligent design and was curious to read what a popular person such as Mr. Sparks, whose voice would possibly have an impact on the opinions of a more general populace, might have to say about it. Let’s start by saying that I was pleased to read that the Christian school he founded does indeed teach the theory of evolution. But oh, for how he continued (my translation):

FR: At your school the theory of evolution is being taught. That is not the case at every Christian school in the United States.

Sparks: The theory of evolution, too, is just a theory that has never been proven. There are a lot of things that aren’t very clear to me. When the first fish leaves the ocean, who does it mate with? And how did trees evolve from that? Or were the trees there, first? I don’t fully understand that. But I still think, the theory of evolution is the best explanation we have to date, and that’s why we teach it at our school.

Is this guy serious?

I mean, I fully appreciate Christians who can be laid back enough to let science do its thing. On the other hand, what he’s doing, though, is acting as if evolution to normal people was just as much a mystery as is the religious mystery that is belief. And then, when with this kind of argumentation the plausibility of the theory of evolution has been discredited enough and everybody’s free to choose what they consider plausible, a literal interpretation of the Bible might seem more plausible than your salmon Al saying to his wife: “You know, Peg, I’ve had it up to here. You can have the ocean, I’ll move on to dry land.” Or how this salmon, after one hell of a leap, finds that there are no girls to mate with on land, and trees grow from all the salmon semen he keeps losing …

Isn’t it obvious that that’s NOT what the theory of evolution claims? Is this the level at which evolution gets discussed? Sure, not everybody can be a rocket scientist, but everybody who ever gets to talk to the media about evolution should understand a few, simple facts about it. And there must be something wrong with schools, if an adult person having seen at least some education, does not. Because, in fact, the fundamental ideas of the theory of evolution are extremely simple and compellingly plausible in their simplicity.

  1. Evolutionary processes take a LONG time: The first fish to step out of the sea does not just decide to do that on a day and starts to grow some legs.
  2. Repeat after me: Adaptive Radiation: Change happens all the time. The sum of the genetic information in any live population of creatures on Earth changes all the time. Be it through reproduction, mutation or viruses. Random change happens all the time, but within the context of the pressure that the environment exerts on those creatures, some changes will decrease or increase chances of survival. The former changes probably won’t be handed on to as many future generations as the latter. That’s basic probability. That’s survival of the fittest. Simple as that.
    And sometimes a certain mutation will not make a difference in terms of chance of survival, until something changes in the environment. Maybe it gets very cold all of a sudden and suddenly the hairy and somewhat larger mutations of a given kind of animal, that had hitherto just been somewhat infrequent freak occurrences, become the norm, because all the others die more easily under the changed circumstances.

So, the fish leaving the ocean, wasn’t A fish, but generations of fish. They probably had fins different from other fish, to start with, maybe because they had previously undergone a mutation that allowed them to (now I’m making stuff up) dig up food that had hitherto been inaccessible, giving them a competitive edge. And even if there was a first single individual to spend time above the water level, that individual would probably have done that for short periods of time and returned to the sea for mating. It will probably have taken many generations for such animals to be able to spend longer periods of time on dry land or not to have to return to the sea, at all. And the changes to enable that would not have needed to be a matter of course or directed at enabling the conquest of dry land. Fish already able to leave the water for short periods of time might still get offspring incapable of doing that. But their siblings able to would just have a competitive edge, no predators, no competition for food. And every mutation that improves that ability would have increased the advantage. Take a couple of millions of individuals and let probability do its work. I don’t see how anybody can find anything but a compelling plausibility in here. Unless, of course, someday we’ll find a Message in a Bottle by the first lonely fish on dry land.

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2 thoughts on “Evolution: Of Trees and Fish

  1. Joachim says:

    Complete agreement. My wife just read the passage to me (she’s sometimes reading the FR, even when it some days old) and asked me what it was supposed to mean in a puzzled manner. Your translation of the crucial passage its pretty good I think.

    Did the man never see a mudskipper or plants in the tidal zone to get a hunch of how the land may have been conquered? Did he never hear of the swim bladder being homologous to the lungs? I guess it’s a well trained stunt of American creationists, ID-ists, and other soul snatcher to pose as more ignorant than they actually are in order to confuse their ‘prey’. Hopefully the German readership will not be stupid enough to fall for it.

    • Yeah, I dunno … hadn’t even started to suspect a purpose in this case. But you could be right. I sometimes feel like there must be textbooks teaching creationists how to discuss with people listening to science. Something along the lines of “Discussing Genesis for Dummies” or “Bashing Evolution in 8 Easy Steps”. Then, when I hear them say this or that isn’t very clear to them, I keep wanting to say: “If you spent half as much time as you seem to spend studying those empty phrases so you can repeat them to me, actually TRYING to understand, I’m sure you would.” But of course that’s not the point. The point is WANTING to understand vs. wanting to believe.
      As to whether the German readership will fall for it, unfortunately I’m beginning to become a little sceptical after reading things like http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/natur/0,1518,601661,00.html or http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/natur/0,1518,607704,00.html . But time will tell.

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