Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thumbing my nose at Stephen Jay Gould

(Note: This blog entry has prerequisite reading, a short essay to be found here.)

My grandmother used to have a peculiar habit of collecting rocks. Collecting rocks in itself is not weird, most people have done it at one time or another, but most people do it because the rocks they collect have either a certain physical beauty or perhaps they came from a place that has sentimental value to them. My grandmother collected rocks because she wanted to be an archaeologist.

The place where I grew up was considered by many archaeologists to be a veritable treasure trove of artifacts, having been populated for centuries by numerous cultures. An interesting history there, actually; the Pomo tribe was in many ways like the financial center of the ancient California economy. They had a technology that as far as I know is still a secret to this day that enabled them to make stone drill bits they used in the manufacture of beads from seashells. These beads were used as a local currency because there was a limited supply of them made under strict secrecy and control of the Pomo. When Europeans finally made it to the West Coast, they brought with them the technology to make drill bits out of metal, and the economic system collapsed virtually overnight as everyone freely made counterfeit beads.

My grandmother's interest as an amateur archaeologist was, unfortunately, lacking in any sort of scientific rigor. Her back porch was often littered with various stones she had collected on her walks along a nearby creek, and when asked why she had chosen the stones she had, there were two stock answers.

1. "I think these are man-made because I see so many rocks just like them all over the place."
2. "I think this rock was man-made because I've never seen another rock like it anywhere."

I think anyone could see the problem with this logic. Aside from the obvious contradiction, the fact is that real artifacts will probably fall somewhere in between on the commonality spectrum, but in the end, the real issue is that relative rarity of an object is not something that's truly a factor in how likely it is to be man-made. (Those stone drill bits I mentioned are undoubtedly man-made, but are extremely rare, while old rusty nails, which are also undoubtedly man-made, are very easy to find when digging around in the dirt in that area.)

For those of you that read the essay I linked to, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with evolution, or maybe you see it as a transparent attempt to switch the topic to Intelligent Design. Well, ID is definitely going to come up in some form in this post, but I have a message for people on both sides of the evolutionary debate. In his essay, Stephen Jay Gould mentions

"I had always learned that a dexterous, opposable thumb stood among the hallmarks of human success."
I myself had never been taught this, but perhaps I was biased growing up with a cat that had opposable thumbs. I think what Gould is hinting at here is that anti-evolutionists are looking at the thumb of humans and saying essentially, "The thumb as we know it in humans is extremely rare in other animals, therefore surely we must have been designed." Uniqueness is indeed often touted as a basis for assuming intelligent design, usually, of course, as a list of things that are unique to humans in particular. Something that I have been noticing lately after reading a great deal about the platypus is that uniqueness is a surprisingly common thing. Every animal has something that sets it apart from other animals, or it would be the same animal, wouldn't it? And while the platypus is indeed very odd, odd animals exist everywhere. (I think on this continent, our "odd animal" is the hummingbird, but I'm sure there are other freaks of nature.) Anyway, the oddly unique qualities that are possessed by homo sapiens are really a non-issue to evolutionary biologists, and from a purely scientific standpoint, they shouldn't be, really.

The thing that I really find fascinating about this essay is that Gould (a man who, if Darwinism were a religion as some of my fellow fundamentalists seem to think, would have been one of its archbishops if not the Pope) seems to agree with some of the views that creationists and ID proponents espouse today. While most skeptics insist that the idea of a creator who designed life is preposterous and need not even be addressed as a possibility, Gould gives a nod to the concept:
"[I]deal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator."
Certainly Gould never admits the idea of a creator as a likely possibility, and in fact the whole point of the essay is to argue fiercely against the concept, but he does address the concept in order to make a reasoned argument against it, something few evolutionists even bother to do, it seems to me.

For those anti-evolutionists who may be reading this, I would say to you that if you actually read Gould's essay and it didn't give you pause, I think you're either being intellectually dishonest or you didn't understand his point. I think a big part of what makes his argument so strong is that he does take time to consider the possibilities presented by the hypothesized existence of an intelligent creator of the panda. In seeing both sides, at least in some limited degree, he's creating a case that is much more well-rounded than most I've heard. Creationists could and should take a tip from Gould. While I've been railing a bit in my last paragraph about evolutionists failing to address the opposition, I don't want to give the impression that I think creationists are any better on average in that respect. No ground is going to be gained for the cause of promoting creationism or ID by ignoring the other side. Evolution has a lot of evidence and many solid arguments behind it, and while, yes, it does seem highly unlikely that somehow billions of years of random chance caused inert matter to somehow coalesce and eventually morph into modern humans, simply saying that it's dubious is hardly an argument in itself.

Gould's argument is pretty straightforward, but needs an essay several pages long to explain the backdrop of the real meat of the argument; delving into the general morphology of the order carnivora, comparing pandas to bears and other relatives, explaining the mechanism of the human thumb vs. the panda thumb all lead up to a basis for putting it all together into a simple premise.
"The radial thumb is...a contraption, not a lovely contrivance."
Gould is assuming that an omnipotent creator would either give the panda the same thumb he gave other animals (especially since all the parts are there to do so), or he would build an entirely new type of thumb from entirely new body parts that simply do not exist in other species. There's logic in this, no doubt. The panda's thumb is essentially a thumb that is designed the hard way, so to speak, when at least one more elegant solution to the construction problem exists, and one might suppose other elegant solutions could be made. (If you were a mechanical engineer, you probably could think of one or two easily, I imagine.)

One of the things about this argument that I find interesting is that, aside from acknowledging the possibility of a creator, it also runs counter to what I've heard from other atheists. Often those who promote the idea of evolution over creationism will point to the similarities between creatures and say that those similarities indicate common ancestry. Gould seems to be implicitly confirming what many creationists will say in response to such an argument: that common design implies a common designer. After all, why should God re-create the thumb for humans when a perfectly good thumb already exists in other primates? It's that very argument that creationists love to use (and the average evolutionist pooh-poohs) that is the very basis for Gould's argument here. Why shouldn't God use a pre-existing design, or, if there was a good reason not to, why wouldn't God make something new rather than cobble together a thumb from second-hand parts, so to speak.

When I was a kid, I got some Legos in a McDonald's Happy Meal. The small collection of Legos was designed to make something specific, like a little racecar. Now, I could make that racecar, sure, but the real fun was in making something new and unexpected out of those parts. Could I position the wheels closer together so that they functioned like gears? Could I make a car that bore little or no resemblance to the intended car design? If I really wanted to get creative, I could have asked my parents to buy me more Legos, but tinkering was fun and stimulating. Is it a sure thing that God would not also think so? As I could think of my attempts to combine the same set of Legos in different ways a way of showing my creativity, could not God also wish to show His creative side by combining the same set of bones, muscles and tendons in varying and surprising ways? Is nature's variety God's way of showing us that there's more than one way to skin a cat?

While I do think that Gould's argument is very strong (and has resulted in my wanting to read some of Darwin's books, particularly the one on orchids, which must be a blast), what's really missing in the story here to truly address the concerns of a theist is more info on the theological side. While Gould takes time to unpack all the baggage of ursine bone structure, when it comes to dealing with the question of creationism, he simply assumes the proper action of an omnipotent creator.
"If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes."
So many arguments against the existence of God boil down to this sentence with different phrases inserted in the underlined spaces. "If God was really good, surely he would have spared my mother Alzheimer's." "If God didn't want me to have sex with whomever I want whenever I want, surely he would not make it feel so darn good." "If God wanted me to believe in him, surely he would give me a million dollars." In short, assume you know what God would do or how he would think, and base your beliefs around that assumption.

The fact is, maybe Gould is right. I mean, it sounds reasonable. However, there are a lot of things that sound reasonable, but aren't necessarily so. "Humans are designed in a manner so high above the other animals in dexterity, intelligence and other factors that surely we are the apex of creation." That's something that sounds quite reasonable to most people, but evolutionary biology shows that this is not the case at all, or at least it doesn't follow in direct logical progression.

You know what I think? I think there are (at least) two things in the universe that are simply beyond our ability to fully comprehend. One of them is the full story of the origin of life as we currently know it, and the other is the mind of God. Maybe instead of fighting over who has come closer to arriving at unattainable knowledge, we could just enjoy the journey? Probably not likely, but that's my personal plan.