Part One. Posted by olvlzl
For my sister-in-law, Dr. M.W.D., the biologist who has talked through some of my questions with me.
EVOLUTION is long. It’s really, really long. It encompasses the entire duration of life on the planet Earth. Most commonly that is thought today to be a period of more than three billion years. That’s a number we are all familiar with hearing but getting your mind around what even one billion - 1,000,000,000 - years really consists of is impossible. What could a billion years mean to a person? What would the first, the last and all of the varied unknown and unrecorded days, seasons, years and ages in between years one and one billion mean. They are incomprehensible in their vast duration and compass of possible experience in terms of even the longest human life span. We have no frame of reference.
And not only is EVOLUTION (upper case) long, it is also large in numbers, encompassing, literally, all of the lives of all of the organisms that have ever existed. All of the organisms which have reproduced or been produced. That number is of many magnitudes larger than even the incomprehensible billions of years already mentioned. Consider, just as a sample of the complications, the known time periods between generations of living species of rodents, and of one-celled organisms. Consider the number of fertile eggs some species of plants, insects and mollusks produce in one reproductive cycle. Each of the surviving, reproducing individuals was and is a variation, many have the possibility of having an effect on future generations. Leaving the entirely relevant question of individuals aside, imagining even the number of what we might classify as species, each comprising subspecies, varieties, and other sub groupings is incomprehensible.
Now it’s necessary to make a distinction between EVOLUTION, the actual fact of life in both its ancient and contemporary diversity and numbers, and the human science of evolution (lower case), which attempts to study the mechanisms and artifacts of all those lives and to understand many different aspects of them, including the attempts to make general assertions about them. Let’s allow the conventional beginning of the science of evolution as the publication date of The Origin of Species, 1859. In that case, evolution as a formal, scientific, study has been going on for about a hundred fifty years.
Immediately we have come on something remarkable, the difference between the billions of years that EVOLUTION has been operating and the mere one hundred fifty years that it has been studied to date. The fraction which would represent the part of EVOLUTION which is taken up by the human study of it looks something like 150 over 3,000,000,000+. A hundred-fifty years outstrips the conscious experience of most human beings by about twice, but it would appear to be like the briefest noticeable moment when opposed to the time that EVOLUTION has been continually in process*.
As a way of beginning the approximation of how complete a picture our science of evolution can give us today , other factors, of equal and even greater importance than the number of years, species, and individuals, have to be considered. While these numbers yielded by these aren’t known we can know that whatever it is would tax our imagination so as to be incomprehensible even before multiplication of factors to be considered begins. It is far from the end of it.
There is much more to consider such as the individual physical aspects of the bodies and lives of all individuals which could impinge on the processes of EVOLUTION, those which we know about, those which we will never know about due to the fact that their traces are lost for all time. The available physical record available to us represents an infinitesimally small number of the physical variations that must have had some impact on the species and individuals alive today. Many of the examples available to us may or may not be representative of whatever species we might assign them to, if we were able to. Added into that the impacts of climate, pathology, nutrition, and those entirely unavailable variables, behavior and chance happening, which would properly enter into the study, the data available to study might be seen as nugatory. We can be certain that the information we have available or will ever have available is inadequate to present even a general picture of EVOLUTION, our study must, therefore, be limited to only a small part of it.
If, by some miracle, the reproduction by a single strand of life continued unbroken over more than three billion years it would produce astonishing physical variation if only as a matter of chance mutation over time. To say ‘by some miracle’ is not accurate, though, because that is literally the case of every single organism alive as you read this. It has been a single unbroken strand from the beginning of evolution that has produced each of us, no two alike. And that is entirely too simple, because we are at the ends of intertwining stands through innumerable exchanges of genetic material among different organisms, all of them subject to the possibility of mutation. Reproduction by the numbers we are considering clearly produces variety of results, in ways and almost certainly by means which we can not begin to imagine. It would be literally miraculous if it hadn’t. One thing that it is essential to keep in mind, at every moment in that three billion years there was a living being that was the offspring of living beings and which produced living beings all living in an environment that allowed them to survive.
This experiment could lead us to an important conclusion, while EVOLUTION is a fact supported by the relevant science, the belief that we know more than a tiny part of that phenomenon is absurd. EVOLUTION, in terms of human capacity, is effectively of infinite complexity**. It is almost certain that much many more facts will be known if the study continues, maybe many times more than what we have now. I would propose that it is certain we can’t even suspect enormous parts of even what will be knowable.
But this daunting picture doesn’t mean that what we do know is unimportant. A mathematician once pointed out that given the infinity of topics that could possibly be taken up to study in mathematics, the question of interest becomes a matter of greatest importance. And as we have seen the possibilities surrounding EVOLUTION are equally taxing of the attention of the human species.
What do those who study evolution want from it? What uses can it be put to, what uses is it put to? To what extent do people who hope to make a profession out of the study of evolution allow their personal interests to effect their ideally objective science? Do they hope to get a certain job with people of a certain ideology? It could be the hope of professional acceptance that might shade what is concluded. It might even be that the science itself, what has been published to date and what is currently fashionable skews consideration. Does the professional study of evolution limit the science itself ? Do those engaged in it find what they are looking for and miss other things?***
And, by all means, we have to limit the consideration to those who accept that EVOLUTION is a fact and who do not try to impose an agenda which cannot be evaluated with the legitimate tools and methods of science. To do that removes someone from serious, scientific, consideration.
I have said that the science of evolution is important but it isn’t the most important thing in life. Life has gotten along for billions of years without our science, as shown in the fourth paragraph above. Somehow its having done so without the custodial care of human science almost leads to a feeling of anxiety. And yet it happened unobserved and unremarked by us.****
There is a consideration made much more interesting than evolution by necessity, today. We are in the midst of a mass extinction event caused by human activity. It endangers a huge part of the diversity of the biosphere, shutting off the lines of huge numbers of species, entire biotas are in danger of extinction. It is entirely possible that the products of science, technology, economics, politics and other human activities could kill us all.
EVOLUTION compared to the human study, evolution, is infinitely more important. Preservation of the thing studied is more important than the study of it. Our most important tool to preserve the biosphere, the only link between the entire past of life and the entirety of what life there is in the future, is politics. Politics is one of the greatest tools we have to correct human actions that endanger us all. The political success of environmental protection and species preservation is far more important than protecting any dearly cherished ideology of humans. Capitalism, communism, socialism, physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, Darwinism - which, many of you will be surprised to realize, isn’t the same thing as evolution -, creationism, etc. None of these are as important as saving the planet, none of them would have the possibility of existing without the life of the planet being saved.
Even these cherished ideologies and theories which our educations falsely lead us to believe are paramount, are entirely dependent for their existence on the future of EVOLUTION. Whatever they can lend to that effort is necessary, whatever preserves the life of the planet is necessary, whatever endangers it must be rejected. This includes whatever these ideologies, sciences, fads, etc. do which results in preventing political change that is necessary to save the environment. Environmental science, in so far as it is used to preserve the basis of life is the most important science we have ever devised. It is the science that deserves our greatest concern and effort. It is the key to our survival.
* We could also consider the number of researchers in evolution and its allied fields and wonder how that number could compare with the range of what is included with Evolution.
** The opponents of evolution and those who deny EVOLUTION aren’t stupid. They are quite able to read and figure out the weak spots in the man made theories about it. Not being honest about those weaknesses, pretending that the fact of EVOLUTION stands or falls on the basis of current ideologies within evolution plays into their hands.
*** Maybe it is right to look at the body of professionals who make their living in evolutionary science as being the product of selection pressures, or of adaptation to their profession’s environment. While EVOLUTION is a fact supported by an amazing amount of science it is large enough and unknown enough to produce different ideas. Perhaps a different species of evolutionist would dominate the field if the cultural environment and, especially, those with the ability to fund it hadn’t favored a particular point of view. Being a casual witness to just the death match over the rather modest idea of “spandrels”, in the 90s its clear there was a struggle for survival and reproduction. How could they object to these questions being raised about their profession?
**** It is undeniable that EVOLUTION would have fared better in species diversity and, most likely, in the possibility of its continuing at all, if humans and our culture, hadn’t evolved. Though they are not entirely to blame, science and technology are some of the primary causes of the destruction of the environment. They have accelerated the process of destroying the environment through magnifying the powers of human despoilers and they have provided chemicals and mechanisms not found by those without science and technology. They have done this at a rate many times faster than they have generated the knowledge needed to preserve the planet. To deny that is as irresponsible as it is ridiculous. To allow that fact to go unsaid precludes possibilities of reform and we need reform in the behavior that results from science. Science is almost as important as politics in the struggle to save the planet.