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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Can man "harm" evolution?

(Note: My comments on Simon Conway Morris's characterization of intelligent design hypotheses as mystery religions.)

Such a thesis is advanced in all seriousness in the British Independent in "Darwin's finches show how man harms evolution."

Biologists have found that one of Darwin's finches living in the remote Pacific archipelago has begun to revert to an earlier form because of interference caused by a growing human population. Humans are causing evolution to slip into reverse for one of the finch species that lives on the islands. Scientists have found that the finch is losing the distinguishing trait that was causing it to split into two different species - its beak.

Now, first off, if by "evolution" these researchers mean what Darwin and his colleagues and successors - and most of their detractors - have meant, man can't harm it. Evolution supposedly includes man, so whatever man does is part of evolution. Of course, human activities may raise or lower the biomass or species diversity, or ozone, and the outcomes of such actions may be significant, but humans cannot harm evolution as such, any more than they can harm pi or gravity.

Professor Andrew Hendry of McGill University in Montreal, who led the study, said: "We need to make more effort to enable those species that are in the process of diversifying to continue to diversify and thereby generate new species. It is appropriate to describe it as evolution in reverse. It's an evolutionary split within a species that is being reversed and we think human activity is responsible," he said.

Why enable species "to continue to diversify"? Extreme specialization is a well-traveled route to extinction. If the finches could ask my opinion, I would advise them against it. They are better off to keep a number of possible traits in waiting and retreat quickly from a useless specialization, as necessary. The most likely explanation for the finches reverting to an earlier beak shape is that variation in beak shape is part of a collection of traits that can still be accessed through natural selection - and that ability to vary within a group is precisely what keeps the species going under environment pressure, notcontinued diversification and specialization. But I cannot remember the last time a bird asked my advice. Heck, even my very elderly cat tends to exhaust all the options he can think of for solving his own health problems before allowing me to trundle him off to the vet, a mere human who has spent twenty-five years studying cats in a scientific way.

Judging from the Pianka affair, I would say that Darwinists have committed themselves to an impossible position: They need to see humans as both mere creatures of evolution and as destroyers of evolution. That won't really work, of course, however many US federal judges rule that it must be taught as dogma in all publicly funded schools.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove ?

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being denied tenure at Baylor.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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