Monkey business

At a gas station on South Main St. shortly after I began working at the Culpeper News in August, 1999, a man approached me and asked “Are you a college student?” “No,” I said, “why?”

It turned out he had seen a “Darwin” bumper sticker on my car and wanted to know if I really believed in such stuff. I told him that Darwinism wasn’t something one “believed in” like a religion, that it was just biology, and we ended up having a little Creationism vs. Darwinism debate beside the gas pumps until somebody else who wanted gas started honking. The man was very polite and friendly, and I would have liked to continue the conversation.

His main concerns were:
1) How could everything (people, trees, etc.) just instantly appear?
2) How could we believe life on earth to be millions of years old without any written records from people who lived that long ago?
3) If Darwinism is right, why has its theory changed over the years?

The question that Darwinism and Creationism try to answer is how all this complicated stuff (especially humans) came into being. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who lived before Darwin, professed to be absolutely stumped as to an answer. But he did say that supposing a super-human being to have created everything would just exchange a hard question for an even harder one, because then we would have to ask “How did this infinitely MORE complex being come to exist?” Hume compared this problem to a Hindu belief that the world rested on an elephant’s back. The elephant stood on a turtle. It is not recorded what the turtle stood on, but it’s hard to think of anything that wouldn’t itself have needed to stand on something else. I don’t deny Creationism because Darwinism seems better, but because Creationism doesn’t answer the question at all. I find “God has just always existed” no more convincing than “People and trees have just always existed” or “The super-God who created God has just always existed.” None of these is preferable to the others, because none of them answers the question of how something can come into being.

The beauty of Darwinism is that it offers an actual explanation of how something complex can come into existence from something simpler by means of comprehensible and observable mechanisms. It does not attempt to answer the question of why anything exists at all, and I am as stumped on that one as Hume was. Darwinism does not propose that anything instantly appeared. Rather, according to Darwinism, life forms have taken millions of years to evolve. They take many fewer years to extinguish. What life on earth will look like in the future Darwinism cannot by itself predict. What anything should look like in the future – that is, what we desire that anything look like – is also a question on which Darwinism has no bearing.

Written evidence is no more perfect a proof of things than physical observations are. If I read a report from five years ago maintaining that a company did not dump a chemical into a pit, and physical observation suggests otherwise, I will not necessarily believe the written word. We base our beliefs on the best evidence we can acquire, of what ever sort. I have no doubt that there are books in existence claiming to have been written millions of years ago, but they play no part in my belief that the earth is more than a few thousand years old. My interlocutor himself accepted physical observation as a valid type of evidence where he thought it supported his beliefs.

Darwinism has changed over the years because human creations, such as scientific theories, evolve in much the same way that living creatures do. Richard Dawkins, one of the best writers on Darwinism, coined the term meme for a unit of cultural evolution, as the gene is a unit of biological evolution. If Darwinism were to somehow stop changing, I would become suspicious that it had become something people clung to because they wanted to believe in it, and that a more-convincing idea had replaced it in the minds of honest investigators. Some day that may happen.

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