“Evolution” is misunderstood

I’ve come across this situation before. Take two groups of people who come from different specialties, and they’ll use the same word but build quite different images in their minds. If you continue in that mode, rarely can you reach agreement on anything because the parties are not effectively communicating, and they consistently wonder why the other group doesn’t get it.

Evolution is one of those terms. The related forms evolutionist and evolutionism are problems too.

Forgive me if this seems simplistic. It isn’t and is the basis for most disagreement among those who support creationism, intelligent-design, and those who support evolution.

Although the term evolution was already in use prior to Charles Darwin’s theory was published in 1859, the term evolution usually has some connection with his theory. The Encarta dictionary says that for biology, it is the theoretical process by which all species develop from earlier forms of life.

This term is also used for changes in nearly any field, such as the evolution of music, evolution of language, and the evolution of computer technology, and implies gradual changes over time.

Determining how any field has changed over time is the work of a historian of one sort or another, and sometimes they have specific names. Understanding how ancient life forms have changed over time is the work of the paleontologist, who primarily gets his information from the fossil record.

The information in the fossil record is found in the form of fossils where the body of the organism has been converted to rock under very specific conditions that will occur only rarely. Soft, fleshy bodies won’t be found much, if at all, and only the hard skeleton or shells will be generally part of the record.

Scientists who refine the theory of evolution work only up to a theoretical first organism which has sufficient infrastructure to follow the laws of Mendelian genetics, natural selection, and chance mutation. They draw the line there and assume that anything before that point is impossible to comment on because there is no evidence regarding exactly how the first such organism took form.

Consider Stephen J. Gould’s comment on this topic from his work of popular nonfiction Bully for Brontosaurus:

Pg. 455: Evolution is not the study of life’s ultimate origin as a path toward discerning its deepest meaning. Evolution, in fact, is not the study of origins at all. Even the more restricted (and scientifically permissible) question of life’s origin on our earth lies outside its domain. (This interesting problem, I suspect, falls primarily within the purview of chemistry and the physics of self-organizing systems.) Evolution studies the pathways and mechanisms of organic change following the origin of life.

However, some scientists include the topic of life’s origins within the more general topic of evolution, such as John Maynard Smith in The Major Transitions in Evolution. Indeed, it seems somewhat artificial to stop the inquiry about life at the point where present-day evolutionary principles are in effect. Smith considers the sticky point of how DNA could possibly come about and how cells came to be. So it is not universal that all scientists restrict evolution to the period when life became sophisticated enough such that natural selection and Mendelian genetics could be the underlying principles driving evolution. But it certainly is convenient because they can pin this part down much more clearly and claim it is closer to fact than theory.

Ask the man on the street about evolution and they’ll likely tell you the theory also includes the concept that life started here on earth as a chance accretion of matter.

Such an accretion is possible, but it seems quite unlikely. It is working against the law of entropy and a tendency toward randomness. Perhaps it can be argued that the structure of our universe is particularly amenable to such a self-assembly, and therefore this consequence is quite normal. However, the steps required are still a mystery. It appears now that it is not a simple matter at all, but still not impossible. Most theories assume that self-replicating RNA-like sequences were first, and then they eventually built DNA. But the step from RNA to DNA is not direct and the process is certainly unclear at this point. Nevertheless, with billions of years available for the process, it may still be possible, and we may eventually understand how self-assembly may be possible.

From the mind of a theologian, the concept of an evolutionist also includes this self-organizing interval while the scientists uses the word for the scientist who only works with Darwinian-rooted evolutionary principles. This is where the disconnect occurs.

I’m sorry to say that the blame is properly put on the scientific community who took the general term evolution and employed it for a more specific specialty. They say that evolution is fact–not theory–but they are only referring to the well understood interval after complex, DNA-based organisms were part of the picture. Others say that evolution is only theory after all, and they are right too, because they are also including the initial formation of life on earth.

The options for what may have happened at the initial formation of life include only two possibilities. 1) life self-organized or 2) life was assisted in this organization.

Evolutionism assumes it self-organized here on earth and did not require any assistance either from a supreme being or another life form. Until we can prove that this is possible, possibly by recreating the process, this will be only an untested theory.

Intelligent Design assumes that the structures found are too complex to have arisen by chance against the general tendency of entropy. Most ID advocates also insist that the only solution is that a supreme being created life here on earth, mostly in line with creationism arguments.

If life was assisted by other life, then perhaps life did not arise here and was not created here, but either arose or was created somewhere else and then seeded here. This is also a difficult alternative as it implies that some form of life would be able to get to this particular location of the universe, find the right conditions, and establish life on the planet. If some of the issues of space travel were resolved, this may be the most likely scenario. If that is the case, then life may have been assisted at other times as well.

Unfortunately, this does not solve the problem completely, as it would then push the origin of life back only one step, to have arisen on another world and perhaps different conditions. It may be true, but it does not answer the ultimate question about how life originally arose, only pushes the question back one step.

With all this said, I think that if all parties understood and acknowledged that we really don’t know how this all got started, the positions of the various points of view could be seen as equally valid until we get more information. However, unless there is some way to prove that a supreme being exists, there is no equality when it comes to that point of view, and therefore we are really only considering the possibility that life arose here or life arose elsewhere and was seeded here.

If science can resolve the steps necessary for life to self-organize and a good case made that such could have been the case when earth first formed, then this would improve the likelihood that evolution (all the way back to the origin of life) is fact. I would like to see life created in the laboratory to substantiate this theory. Then, evolutionism would win and it becomes science.

With all that said, finding a convincing description of DNA, natural selection, and the underlying pattern of life in ancient documents is one more data point to be considered, and is the core concept of the novel Coils of the Serpent, and it then begs the question about how the description got into those ancient documents.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.