Defining Evolution 5: A Very Useful Definition

“Another Thursday, another enormous pile of Nachos!” That’s my motto. At least, it’s one of my mottos. I’ve also been known to say, “You can have me pretty or early, but not both,” or “I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like,” and on rare occasions, “Get it BEFORE it dries!”

I had come to the sacred meeting grounds of mighty men of valor which is known as Danny’s Bar, Grill, and House of Rabblerousing to meet my friends after our nine to fives. As per our custom, we gathered to drink root beers, complain about our bosses seeming lack of grey cells, and brag about the important memos we had read, epic meetings we were forced to attend, and unstoppable onslaught of coffee we had consumed. NACHOS logo

On any given Thursday, the tales told by myself and my friends Bill, Carl, Tom, and Captain Blue Beard would have expanded to include the latest science fiction films, young adult novels, or action packed video games experienced, but we had wound up in a series of talks about science. Specifically, Carl and I had gotten our teeth and claws all set for a fisticuffs about the validity of Darwinian Evolution, when our medically trained friend, Bill, had suggested that we first make an effort to define what the thing is. While a lot of textbooks have suggestions, most if not all of them are pitiful for a host of reasons. Just a day or so ago I had read a textbook definition which said “Evolution: When things change, or evolve, over time.” Our public school kids are being taught from books which tell them that evolution is when things evolve, and we wonder why they don’t take their educations seriously. I suspect this may explain the rampant drug use among today’s youth, but I digress.

“When last we left,” I said to my comrades, frosty mug of root beer in hand, “our good friend Carl had suggested that I come up with a definition which was superior to that offered by the textbooks and web sites we had examined and pooh-poohed. My friends,” I said, root beer held to the light, “I have done just so!”

“Here, here!” shouted Blue Beard. “A gentleman and a scholar at a very reasonable hourly rate.”

“I gotta hear this,” muttered Carl as he drank.

“The story is, in a very condensed nutshell,” I began, “the story of how (whatever else might happen during the same time span) bacteria gained the genes to become worms which gained the genes to become fish which gained the genes to become lizards which gained the genes to become rodents which gained the genes to become primates which gained the genes to become you- as we have seen illustrated in the Darwinian Tree of Life. The rodents which became you also branched off in another direction and became wolves. The bacteria which became you also branched off in a different direction and became cabbages.evolutionary history to shatner2 copy
“Thus, this growth of the Darwinian tree of life which resulted in you and wolves and cabbages started with some bacteria which gained the genes to become something more than bacteria, and through several different branches over long periods of time, those bacteria gained the genes to become you, or wolves, or cabbages, or anything else on earth.”

“We’ve been through this,” Carl reminded us. “Get on with it.”

“Yes, thank you Carl. I have developed my own definition which I think explains what evolution must be if it is to be given credit for the evolutionary story of the history of life on earth. It goes like this.” I cleared my throat and took out a 3 x 5 note card which I had prepared for the occasion.
“My definition, By Rent-A-Friend 2000, copyright RAFMinistries, 2015.”

“Get on with it!” said Carl again, this time joined by the others in chorus.

“Right. Here it is.

Evolution is an unguided, Natural process which increases the genetic information in an organism; Creating new Genes which did not previously exist.
These new genes then cause an increase in physical complexity and associated behavior, Both of which increase the organism’s ability to survive and pass on these traits to offspring.”

I looked at their faces, beaming with pride.
“Isn’t that wonderful?” I exclaimed. “It says everything a good definition needs to, and without the use of expert level specifics. I know SOME of you didn’t think that it could be done.” I nodded to Carl, who rolled his eyes in return.
“I want you all to embrace this definition. Give it a BIG old hug! And when you use it, let people know where it came from. And also deposit $15 into my PayPal account to cover royalties and my licensing fee.”

“All right,” said Carl. “Enough aggrandizing. Let’s talk about it. I suspect it fails somehow.”

“I thought you might say that,” I said, reaching into my pocket, “so I made you each your own note card with my definition on it.” I distributed the note cards with the proud glow which a new father might pass out photos of his new baby, provided his baby was a definition for a scientific model.

“I’ve got a question,” said Tom thoughtfully, his eyes drifting over the note card he held. “Why does it have to be an unguided, natural process?”

“Experience, my dear boy,” I said. “I had one gentleman approach me in person to explain that evolution is an observed fact of science. I asked him to defend this statement, and he began telling me what geneticists have accomplished with gene splicing in the lab. I stopped him right there because it does not MATTER what scientists can do in the lab when we are talking about a defense of evolution. Would you agree, Bill?” I like to defer to Bill in matters of biology since he is an actual Doctor. Or maybe he plays one on TV. Either way, he sounds so awful smart, and yet whimsical.

“I would agree,” he said. “What scientists do in the lab is no more an example of evolution than Mt Rushmore is an example of erosion. Mt Rushmore tells us a lot about the physical structure of that rock, see, but it says nothing about erosion. Erosion would NEVER turn a mountainside into the head of a former US president. What scientists can do with DNA in a lab tells us about the chemical properties of DNA, and the cleverness of those scientists, but it says nothing about how the DNA came to exist or what it will do when left to nature.”

“But why,” asked Tom, “does it have to be purely unguided? Don’t a lot of people think God used evolution to make different life forms?”

“While there are many who would try to blend Creation, Intelligent Design and Evolution together into a mythical smoothie of pseudoscience,” I agreed, “I think the rest of us would stop them before they hit that Puree button, because it simply cannot be done. What happens is, you get a worldview where in God performs a countless number of small miracles to turn bacteria into wolves and cabbages and everything in between using non miraculous means. A miracle by natural means is a contradiction in terms, so you wind up saying nothing.”

“Let us keep in mind,” exclaimed Blue Beard, “that Darwin claimed to show the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, not by means of Divine Intervention.” He laughed at his own cleverness and swallowed another mouthful of root beer.

“For evolution to be Darwinian,” I said, “Evolution must claim, as Darwin and all of his disciples since have claimed, that the changes which happen over time are unguided and natural changes. Carl, would you agree?”

“I think I do,” he said. “My understanding of Evolution doesn’t require any miraculous interventions. Evolution is intended to be a description of how nature behaves, just as gravity is a description of how matter behaves. If nothing else, I say this is a feature which separates Evolution from Creation. Evolution doesn’t need any miracles.”

“Oh, don’t you now?” said Blue Beard with enthusiasm. “Then where did the first living cell come from, I wonder? Did some DNA write itself and then build a cell to live in, or did a cell fall together by accident and then write some DNA to govern itself, like a tiny Continental Congress?”

“Evolution doesn’t need to explain the origin of the first life,” Carl retorted bitterly. “Evolution is what happens after there is life reproducing.”

“Oh, a fine time to end your intellectual responsibility,” laughed our pirate friend. “So rain on rocks somehow violates every known law of physics and chemistry and probability to make the first living cell, and you can close you eyes and be content to say, ‘Well, it MUST have happened!’ And once it did, then Evolution could get started. AFTER the miracle.”

“The arrival of the first cell is a mystery to science,” admitted Carl, “but doesn’t require any miracles. And again, Evolution is something which only happens to living things which is why we call it decent with modification. When the primordial soup somehow combined the right chemicals to get a self replicating system, the parts weren’t evolving, they were assembling according to some laws of chemistry, though maybe some we don’t yet understand.”

“Actually, Carl is right,” I said. The look on Carl’s face was something of astonishment as he is simply not used to me siding with him, especially in these matters. He looked as if he was about to have a serious bout of indigestion.

“About what?” demanded our blue tinted pirate friend.

“About evolution only happening to living things.” I said. “In some sense, evolution can’t happen to things that don’t reproduce- at least Darwinian Evolution can’t. It can only happen to living things, and thus the origin of the first living things is not an evolutionary question.”

“Thank you,” said Carl.

“On the other hand, Blue Beard is right, Carl. All of these textbooks do put forth some kind of origin story, however vague, because the evolution of life on earth had to start somewhere. You need a base to the Tree of Life or there would never have been a tree to follow. But even the simplest cell is so complex that the accidental coming together of such a complex and information rich system is…” I searched for the word.

“Stupid!” shouted Blue Beard heartily.

“Not the word I was looking for,” I told him. “But mathematically it is impossible.”

“Well, it must have happened somehow,” said Carl stubbornly, “and someday science will be able to explain it.”

“That,” I admitted, “is a statement of great faith.” Carl bristled at the word ‘faith.’ He prefers to use that word as an insult against me, and hates it when I find these opportunities to point out that he has faith of his own. “Your religion is based on the faith that, someday, future science will explain what modern science has already shown to be impossible. My faith requires me to believe an all powerful super intelligence can make machines and write code. Which, is something Tom can do, can’t you?”

“Oh, well, yes,” said Tom. “But of course, we don’t write code that is anything nearly as complex as DNA. DNA has codes within codes and even sections which contain multiple codes in different directions…” he noticed Carl’s face getting redder and redder and chose to get back on topic. “Anyway, so, why does it have to be unguided? Why not just accept any change over time?”

“For one instance,” replied Bill, “the changes made by animal breeders and farmers as they choose certain traits (Called Artificial Selection) is not evolution because it is intellectually guided, and caused by a person with a goal in mind. You understand? Nature does not have a mind or any goals, you see. All of the mechanisms of evolution are meant to be purely accidental by products of nature plus time. If the Darwinian Tree and it’s associated time line is accepted, it means there was no one making choices for the first 99% of the history of life on earth. Just natural, unguided accidents.”

“If Natural Selection could talk,” I interjected, “it would constantly be parroting the phrase of reflective introspection made famous by 1990’s philosopher, Steven Quincy Urkel; “Oops. Did I do that?”
“If you reject the idea that evolution is supposed to be an unguided and natural process,” I said, “then you are not talking about Darwinian evolution. Whatever you are talking about has a different name, and I suggest you surf over to Google and find out what it is. When you’ve found it, make yourself a fruit smoothie. You’ve earned it.”

“I’ll have a smoothie for lunch tomorrow,” said Tom. “But right now the mountain of nachos is coming this way!”
And so it was.

We tucked into our pile of cheese, chips, meat, love, sunshine, joy, and metaphysical inner peace for a few moments in silence. I had suspected that we would return to the discussion presently, but before that could happen, someone mentioned the new Star Wars trailer, and that got us off and running on different space related topics until our time all too quickly ran out. Thankfully, I knew not to worry about it. My motto is, “There’s always another Thursday.” At least, it is on Thursday nights after the nachos are gone.

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

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