Part of the reason there is such debate about Evolution is because almost no one knows what it is. In this series, we will examine the story Darwinian Evolution intends to tell, look at the things it has to accomplish to tell that story, and then see if any known mechanisms in nature accomplish those goals. The videos will sum up the key points of each chapter. The full chapters, which feature Rent-A-Friend and his fellow Nacho-eating arm chair philosophers, can be read below. Enjoy! #JesusLovesYou
Another Thursday night out with my friends and we were waiting on a plate of Nachos which was so big I am forced to capitalize the word “Nachos.” After long days in the salt mines we make a point to carve out this sacred time to rally round the nourishment inspired by our neighbors to the south and sharpen our wit with conversations about important topics- Big Questions.
Joining the old Rent-A-Friend here at Danny’s Bar, Grill, and House of Rabblerousing are Bill, a doctor who lives in my neighborhood; Tom from shipping records accounts receivable (Who moonlights as a Private Eye); Carl, an Assistant Administrative Management Accounts Specialist (Who spends his weekends leading a crack team of mercenaries); and Captain Blue Beard, who claims to be a pirate, though very little is actually known about him other than that fact that he took a painting class with me at a local community college.
Over the clinks of forks and plates and the slurp of freshly poured root beer, we are discussing the smash theater blockbuster, Avengers, The Age of Ultron. Not to give away any spoilers, but in the film Ultron is a medium sized killer robot who has decided that the human race needs to evolve, and to accomplish this goal he devises a plan to kill off most of the human race. Interestingly, this was the same plan Hitler had devised, but he (And I suspect this was not from a lack of trying) didn’t have an army of robots to do his evil bidding, so he has to settle for a horde of easily influenced German lads. But I digress. The point is, Ultron wants the human race to evolve and while my memory is a little fuzzy, I think he monologues about the history of evolution, from bacteria to worms to fish to man, etc. Or maybe that was a different movie, like the X Men, or any of the Jurassic Park movies, or most any other movie that has to do with the past or dinosaurs, or a group dedicated to killing most of the human race. Magneto and Ultron would have seen eye to eye with Hitler about a great many things. And possibly Megatron and Richard Dawkins, but again I digress.
Carl, himself not a great lover of people in particular, sides with Ultron, at least in principle if not in execution. “The human race needs to continue evolving or we will go extinct!” he said with passion.
“I have to disagree with you immediately, Carl,” I interjected. “In order for the human race to continue doing something, they must have already been doing that something.”
Carl let out an exasperated sigh and rolled his eyes. “Oh, we all know where this is going. Rent-A-Friend is going to lecture us on how he knows more about science than the thousands of PhDs who write textbooks.”
“I find that entirely plausible,” said Blue Beard. “PhD merely means Piled Higher and Deeper. Or, Permanent Head Damage.” He chuckled to himself as Carl stewed, and then said, “No offense meant, Bill.”
“None taken,” said Bill. “I’m an MD, not a PhD, and MD stands for Mighty Doctor! But I think before Carl and Rent-A-Friend begin debating whether or not evolution is a fact, we might want to decide what we mean by the term “Evolution.”
“Well, it’s science,” said Tom.
“I beg to differ, Tom,” I said. “It’s a religion merely meant to replace Christendom in the western world.”
“You’re a paranoid duck,” said Carl. “It’s no more a competing religion than physics, astronomy or global warming.”
“Actually, it’s climate change now,” said Blue Beard with a smirk behind his great, blue beard, “on account of there not being any global warming.”
“But what IS evolution?” I asked. “Define it for me Carl.”
Carl grunted with the annoyed look one might have if you asked them to solve a few first grade math problems. “It’s a scientific fact with mountains of evidence supporting it and none opposing it,” he said with a confident disdain.
Bill had been searching the old internet for a definition. “How about this from that science web site Carl loves? “Evolution is a big category of different things that affect life on earth.”.”
“That’s perfect,” said Carl.
“No, no,” I said. “That won’t do. Lots of things affect life which doesn’t make it evolve. Going extinct just to name one big change which might occur in the course of things.”
“But the evolutionary history of life on earth has included many extinctions,” chimed in Tom. “The fossil record tells us that more than 95% of the species which ever existed have gone extinct.”
“Then why are we wasting so much time and money trying to save some of the pesky critters what’s got on the wrong end of the endangered species list?” demanded Blue Beard.
“I’ve wondered that myself,” I admitted, “but it’s a bit off topic. I was just pointing out that extinction fits the definition Bill gave us, but cannot itself be evolution. If anything, it would happen outside of or along side or, or maybe even because of evolution, but would not itself be evolution. And I still want Carl to define what he means by “evolution” for us.”
“Bill just told you,” replied Carl. “It’s a big category! Don’t go pushing the burden of proof off on me just because you’re suddenly demanding expert level specifics.”
“Is a definition Expert Level Specifics?” I asked, but the attention of my comrades was arrested by the approach of something that combines the glory of a sunset with the awe of a train wreck- Our lovely and affable waitress, Wendy, arriving with our colossal plate of nachos.
“Here you go, boys,” she said, placing it amidst us.
“Wendy,” said Bill, “Do you believe evolution is something that happens?”
“Oh sure,” she said. “I took a whole class on it in college.”
“Could you define it for us?” I asked.
Wendy thought for a moment. “Evolution is the way living things change over time.”
Blue Beard let out a scoff and then said, “Like when they gets a haircut? Or fall into a volcano and die? Those would be changes over time, what?”
“Well, not little changes to one member of a species,” Wendy replied. “It’s the changes that happen over time to whole populations.”
“What kind of changes?” Blue Beard Demanded.
“Well, the kind that drive evolution,” she said. “You guys need some refills?”
“Root beers all around,” said Bill.
Wendy headed off and we dug into our nachos. There was a contemplative silence as we sat thoughtfully munching on great handfuls of nacho goodness. After making a sizable dent in my side of the nacho plate, I said, “There’s something about her definition which doesn’t work. Tom, how would you define ‘evolution’?”
Tom finished a mouthful of nacho with eyes that indicated that, behind his purposeful chomping of nacho there was much activity in the old gray matter. “I don’t know that I would say much different than Wendy,” he said. “I would probably just say that it’s change over time. That’s how I’ve always thought of it. We had a textbook in middle school science that was called, “Evolution, Change Over Time,” and I always kind of thought that it summed it up well enough.”
“And it does,” insisted Carl.
“But Wendy essentially said that evolution is the changes that cause evolution,” I reminded them. “Something can’t be both a cause and an effect. Her definition is just too fuzzy to really mean something.”
“It’s a scientific fact,” said Carl, waving a handful of nacho for emphasis. “That’s all you need to know.”
“He doesn’t know,” scoffed Blue Beard, gesturing to Carl with a loaded chip. “Carl’s certain that Darwin’s Monkey story is a fact, but he hasn’t let data or information cloud his decision.”
Carl’s mouth was too full of Nacho for us to understand his response, but the look on his face indicated that it would have been made of words inappropriate for a family establishment. I chose to pick up the slack before he could clarify himself. “I’ve had a lot of people, not just Carl here, tell me that evolution is a fact and that I am a silly person for refusing to believe it, but when I ask them what it is, they tend to go silent. I often suspect that they can’t make it clear, though they still defend it with the same vigor. I can understand why they take a pass.”
“Once they take a good look at whatever they’ve written,” interjected Blue Beard, “they make extensive use of that Delete key because, whatever they’ve written, it was at best merely silly. So, naturally they prefer to say nothing at all.”
“I understand,” I said, “but on my end this makes for a dull conversation. I would prefer they have the honesty to simply say, “I would tell you what evolution is, but I cannot explain it in a way that does not sound profoundly ridiculous.”
“I think perhaps we need to do this little didle world a favor,” said Bill with some pep. “Whatever side of the isle you sit on, I suspect that there are things you don’t know and have not considered, you see. So let us, the five of us, and Wendy, and these Nachos, all do some research and get our brains to thinking hard, you see, and come up with a definition which is clear and useful.”
We all agreed that this would be an undertaking quite worthy, which we would begin the following week. In the mean time, we did what we could to overcome the Nachos before us and settled back to listen to the local band of the week and toss some darts. I for one was eager to see what we would learn the next week.
Happy Nachos! And thanks for letting me be your Rent-A-Friend.