Defining Evolution 3: Four Things Evolution HAS to Be

Another Thursday had flowed into our temporary “now” though a week of paper jams, low toner, canceled and rescheduled meetings and paperwork filled out in triplicate. As per usual my friends and I were greeted by a chipper Wendy, our dependable waitress at Danny’s Bar, Grill, and House of Rabblerousing, her arms full of tall mugs of frosty root beer and a plate of the Buffalo Wings which were on special due to some sports event of which I had failed to take notice. Some local team won something and to celebrate, wings were half off. I don’t have to know the reason to appreciate half price wings.NACHOS logo

Just as Wendy headed off to put in the order for our usual mountain of Nachos, Bill joined us at the old round table near the dart board to continue our ongoing discussion on the true meaning of Darwinian evolution. We had decided that, before we could argue about IF evolution is a fact, we had to know WHAT Darwinian Evolution was. You can’t begin to look for evidence for or against something if you can’t define the something. Try it some time and you will see what I mean.

Post our usual pleasantries where in Tom exhumed the dread of a thrice cancelled and yet mandatory meeting, and Carl gripped about the third quarter projection analysis spreadsheets, and Blue Beard hinted at having to leave the country for legal reasons, Bill got right to it as he reminded us of an analogy our sea faring friend had displayed at our last Nacho roundabout.

“Captain Blue Beard had made the analogy that shuffling a normal deck of cards will never produce the Archduke of Hearts,” Bill reminded us, “because the deck doesn’t contain it in the first place.”

“Aye!” exclaimed Blue Beard with a frosty mug held high. “Let a thousand monkeys shuffle a thousand decks of cards for a thousand years and one will never have the Archduke of Hearts, or any other card which was not in the original deck.” He smiled, proud of himself for having contributed so well.

Tom spoke up. “The metaphor being,” he said, “that bacteria shuffling the genes it takes to make bacteria will never shuffle enough to make the genes it takes to make a worm or a fish or a tomato or a moose.”

“Well spoken, Tom!” shouted Blue Beard, clinking his glass against Tom’s a bit harder than was necessary.

“Some of the monkeys will eat some of those cards,” noted Bill. “You will lose cards even faster than you lose monkeys. But once again, this will never create the Archduke of Hearts. Thus, while shuffling genes can make new variations on the wolf, and losing genes can make horrible mutants like the poodle and Chihuahua, those changes aren’t EVOLUTIONARY changes because no amount of time will ever allow those changes to make NEW genes for new features and behaviors. You can breed dogs with dogs for a million years, and again, none of them will ever wind up with the genes it takes to make a moose.”

Blue Beard raised his glass in celebration. “I for one am thankful. The world doesn’t need a dog that necessitates a pooper scooper so big it takes more than three strong men to use it.” Crass though he may be at times, Blue Beard often makes a good point which is hard to argue with.

“However you define it,” I added, “Evolution tells a story: Plant and animal kinds that did not exist in the past (such as Cabbages and Wolves), exist now, and evolution claims to be the process which created those plant and animal kinds (E.g. Cabbages and Wolves).”

“Building a plant or animal takes genetic information in the form of genes,” said Bill. “In terms of genetics: Genes that are necessary to build plant and animal kinds that did not exist in the past, exist now, and evolution claims to be the process which created the genes required to make the plant and animal kinds which exist now.”

“Do you get it, Tom?” asked Blue Beard. “Plants and animals and the genes required to make them exist now, when they did not exist in the past. Not COMBINATIONS of existing genes which did not previously exist. But the genes individually exist now, and did not exist in the past, and thus somehow came into existence.”

“Sure, I get it,” said Tom. “At one time in the past, wolves and cabbages and the genes required to make them did not exist. Now they do exist. Previously they did NOT exist. SOMEHOW they came to exist.”

“Evolution claims to be that somehow,” I said.

Carl set his root beer down with some impatience. “I still don’t see what was wrong with defining Darwinian evolution as “Decent with Modification,” he said. “The National center for Science Education defines it that way. And I’ve got a whole list of other sources which give similar definitions. Why are we arguing about this when professional scientists have already defined the term for us?”

“I anticipated this question,” I said, “and I think I have a list of concepts which we will all agree must be accepted as we seek to define this slippery term.”

My friends agreed and each grabbed a buffalo wing as I got out my list, hand written on yellow legal pad. That fact isn’t important to what follows, but I sincerely love writing on legal pads. It makes everything seem so much more official. Perhaps because it’s called a “Legal Pad.” Like it has a court room stamp of approval. Perhaps it’s the kind of paper laws are originally written on before being put into action. I suspect if they called it “Nerd Paper” I would not be as enthused. But I digress.

1. Evolution is something to do with living things.” I looked up to check for comprehension, and behind their newly buffalo orange faces they all seemed agreeable enough, so I continued. “So, any definition which cannot be specific enough to mean biological evolution is not good enough. For instance, “Change over time” is far too vague, as EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE changes over time. Thus, that definition is not specific enough to be useful. Any definition where in we COULD be talking about rocks, or social media trends is not specific enough to tell us what Charles “Chuck D.” Darwin was talking about.” Again everyone seemed happy enough to go for more wings instead of arguing, so I kept on.

2. Evolution is something about life changing over time. Thus, any definition where in living things do NOT change over time is not good enough. If your definition includes living things staying the same for long periods of time, you are not talking about Darwinian Evolution.”

“Hang on,” said Carl. “Things DO stay the same at different times during the history of evolution. Things aren’t making drastic changes each generation or this whole thing wouldn’t have taken millions of years.”

“Actually,” said Tom, “three and a half billion years.”

“Right,” said Carl.

“Of course there are periods in the story where things do not change,” I said, “but even if you accept that those periods of stasis happen within the evolutionary history, you would agree that those periods of stasis are not when the evolution is happening. It’s when things do NOT stay exactly as they were which evolution happens.”

“Come now, Carl,” said Blue Beard. “Even you must admit that. If Evolution is things changing, then it must be something OTHER than long periods of NOT changing. Right?”

Carl shrugged and dug back into the wings in agreement.

3. Evolution is something which is intended to explain the origin of different kinds of plants and animals. The story Darwinian Evolution tells is, once upon a time there were no (name of plant or animal kind) but over time (mechanisms of evolution) happened until (name of plant or animal kind) came into being. Thus, any definition which doesn’t explain how new kinds of plants or animals can come into being is not evolution.”

“So numbers two and three are sort of two sides of the same coin,” said Tom. I nodded and grabbed a wing for myself.

Blue Beard finished a swig of root beer and added his two cents. “So if the definition describes changes where in the same species from the past is STILL HERE (Like getting a haircut, or having a sensible lunch), or if one which WAS here has gone away (Like going extinct), we are not talking about evolution.”

“Just to make sure we agree here,” said Carl, “the definition doesn’t need to specify and describe all of the mechanisms of evolutionary change, right?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “We don’t need expert level specifics. It’s just a definition.” Carl rolled his eyes and I continued.

4. Evolution tells a story where in all living things arose through past common ancestors until, far enough back in time, we reach a first universal common ancestor, making the history of life on earth a big tree of life. Or going forward in time, it explains how simple things like bacteria became worms which became fish which became lizards which became rodents which became primates which became humans.” This again seemed to be met with general agreement from the sauce faced comrades around the table.

“Thus, any definition which fails to account for the growth of the tree is not good enough,” added Bill for clarity. “Once again, extinction events are fun to watch on Blue Ray, but they do not GROW the tree of life. They do not explain where NEW animals and plants which previously did not exist come from. No species will arise through extinct common ancestors, just to mention one flaw in using extinction in the definition. If perhaps you don’t have a MD in the medical arts like SOME of us do, let me explain: Dead animals don’t reproduce. I don’t mean to perpetuate stereotypes, but in this case I think it is fair to assert that reproducing is something only LIVING things do. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” Blue Beard found this particularly funny.

“The definition must explain how a bacteria can become a worm which becomes a fish which becomes a lizard which becomes a rodent which becomes a primate which becomes all of us.” I said. I pulled out one of the illustrations from the previous week showing the Darwinian Tree of Life.evolutionary history to shatner2 copy “Is that clear enough? WHATEVER Evolution is, it must GROW the Darwinian Tree of life, which is the pictorial representation of the history of life on earth which Evolution tells and Evolution is meant to explain. Carl, if you’re going to object to this again, now would be a good time to explain why before we move on.”

Carl scoffed loudly. “I simply cannot fathom why you require my def of evolution. It’s simple and can be read on any site.” Apparently that was all the explanation we were going to get, as he fell silent and continued showing buffalo chicken into his mouth.

“You know,” added Tom thoughtfully, “perhaps if we can come up with a good definition of what evolution is NOT, it may help us come up with a good definition of what it is.”

We agreed that this was a brilliant idea.

“I’m glad you brought that up.” Said Blue Beard, “Because I was thinking the same thing. Let me give a REALLY good example of what evolution is NOT.” He reached into his broad red coat and pulled out a roll of parchment, which he unrolled and read to us in his booming oratorical voice.
“NOT evolution: In the Beginning God Created the heavens and the earth.” Carl groaned audibly, but Blue Beard kept on without pausing. “Over the course of the week, He created the various animal and plant kinds and declared that they would reproduce according to their kinds, meaning that Dogs would give rise to more dogs, and trees would give rise to more trees of a similar kind, and that tomato plants would never produce Moose. In those created kinds were complex, diverse, and perfect genomes which could be shuffled and disseminated among the many generations to follow, allowing for a huge diversity within the kinds, but while still maintaining the genetic boundaries of each kind. Thus you can have many different varieties of tomato, but never a moose kind of tomato.”

“Who would even want to eat that?” I asked. “I have enough problems making a good salad without having to pick out hair and antlers.”

Blue Beard agreed and then continued reading. “Due to rebellion by mankind, the world has been corrupted and the genomes of each created kind have faced entropy, resulting in harmful mutations, the arising of diseases and parasites and thorns, and occasional extinction of genetic lines due to the increasing genetic load.”

“That was very nice, Blue Beard,” I said.

“Thank you, lad,” he said, striking my glass of root beer with his in celebration.

“So, to clarify,” said Bill, “Biblical Creation is, and evolution is not:
1. Creation by an intelligent designer
2. A great deal of functional genetic information in the past gradually decaying over time into less functional genetic information.
3. A great deal of genetic information in the beginning of a kind being disseminated through subsequent generations so that genes are lost over time.
4. Animals reproducing only within the genetic boundaries of their kinds, and no kind ever giving rise to a different kind.
5. Animal kinds and even species remaining the same for very long periods of time.
6. Extinctions.”

“Hold on,” said Carl. “If you can’t count extinctions as part of evolution, even though they happen during evolutionary history, then you can’t count extinction as part of Creation, even though it might happen after creation.”

“Carl’s right,” I said. “Both models include extinctions as part of their overall historical account of life on earth, but extinction itself isn’t a central part of either.”

“Did you just agree with me?” asked Carl, looking suspect.

“Well, you were right,” I said. “We’re not looking to win a fight here. We’re looking to work together to find the truth.” Once again Carl indicated his acceptance by eating another wing.

“What about Bill’s fifth point,” sad Tom. “Plant and animal kinds, and even species, remaining the same for very long periods of time. Doesn’t evolutionary history include stasis?”

“He’s got you there,” said Carl through a mouthful of chicken.

“In once sense, yes,” I replied. “Like extinctions, stasis is part of both models. However, Creation has an expectation of stasis built into the defining characteristics. Things reproduce according to their kinds. But while evolutionary history might accommodate stasis, it is the opposite of what evolution expects. Evolution expects change. Stasis is things NOT changing.”

“But stasis isn’t necessarily proof of your Creation model,” said Carl.

“Not any one instance,” I said. “But if the trend is primarily stasis, that would at least lean toward the creation model. If we find the same kinds of things in the fossils as we do today, that would lean toward the creation model, and not the evolutionary model. If we find things in the fossils which are drastically different than the things we see living today, that would lean toward evolution.”

“Then score one for evolution,” exclaimed Carl. “Because the fossils show evolution for certain.”

“We’ll look at that in the future,” I said. “In the mean time, here comes Wendy with our mountain of vital sustenance!”
A cheer went up from our table as the Nachos arrived, and we all fell into a thoughtful silence as we stuffed out faces with its cheesy goodness. Later on, darts would be thrown, and even a few songs would be sung. Science can only hold our minds for so long, before the jalapeños of friendship warms our hearts and they break forth into song and revelry.

Before we left, I encouraged Carl to do a little homework and come prepared with definitions of Evolution which we could compare to the list we had accepted tonight. He agreed and we went off on our way, to face another week of the American dream before next we would Nacho.

Happy Nachos! And thanks for letting me be your Rent-A-Friend.

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