June 17, 2008

Darwin Passes His Testings

By Michael Ruse

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - I want to talk about Darwinism - the theory of evolution of the 19th-century English naturalist Charles Robert Darwin.

Before you start to groan and say that you don't think you could read another thing on the science-and-religion clash and on why Intelligent Design should or should not be taught in schools, let me assure you that that is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Darwin's theory itself - first introduced to the world, incidentally, almost 150 years ago (July 1, 1858) and then expanded into the "Origin of Species," which appeared the year after (November 1859).

What fascinates me about the theory is the way that Darwin realized that he had a problem, and how he set out to solve it. The problem is that of convincing people of something that they could never see. Short of having a time machine and traveling into the past, no one is ever going to see the change of fish into amphibians, and then on to reptiles, mammals, apes, and, finally, to humans.

So why should we take the idea seriously? Why should we ever think that it could ever be much more than a "theory," meaning an iffy hypothesis like speculations on the Kennedy assassination? Why should we ever agree that evolution is a "fact"?

Darwin realized full well that often we don't have direct evidence, but that doesn't stop us from talking about facts. Indirect evidence can be overwhelming. It can trump direct evidence even! Take a murder, or some other crime against the person. What would lead you to point a finger at a culprit? Sure, eyewitness testimony is going to be very powerful. But we all know that people under strain can be very unreliable about remembering faces. That is not a weakness; it is a very understandable aspect of human nature.

Much better in such cases is the indirect evidence - the clues, the bits and pieces that point to the culprit. Today, DNA evidence is nigh definitive and with good reason. Any good judge and jury would much sooner know about the molecules on the weapon than the recollections of someone who caught a fleeting glance and whose prejudices may be coloring memory.

What were the clues of evolution - what were the DNA fingerprints pointing to the claim that all organisms come from the same primitive ancestors by a long, slow, natural process of reproduction and development? The fossil record, obviously. Why do we find that the order is roughly progressive, from the primitive down deep to the modern and complex near the surface? Because the older forms are ancestors, that's why!

Why, to take another area of inquiry, do the denizens off the Galapagos Archipelago in the Pacific look like (although slightly differing from) the inhabitants of South America rather than like the inhabitants of Africa?

Why, conversely, do the denizens of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic look like (although slightly differing from) the inhabitants of Africa rather than South America? Because the ancestors of the respective island groups came from the nearest continents and then went on evolving.

Why - and this was really powerful evidence - are the front leg of the horse, the arm of the human, the wing of the bat, the flipper of the porpoise, the paw of the mole, all apparently molded from the same bones connected in the same order when the functions that these forelimbs serve are so very different? Because these animals share common ancestors, and evolution took the early forelimbs and shaped them in different ways, according to need.

Why are the embryos of human and dog so similar but the adults so different? Because they share common ancestors. In the womb, evolution had no need to make differences even though the adult forms were being molded into very different shapes with very different lifestyles and ways of functioning.

These were Darwin's clues - fossils, island inhabitants, forelimbs of vertebrates, similar embryos - and jointly they pointed to one and only one culprit. Evolution. And this is the reason why Charles Darwin and his theory are worth celebrating today.

Darwin knew nothing about the DNA molecule and how it functions. We do, and we have exploited that fact. In recent years, instead of looking at skeletons, evolutionists have been looking at molecules. And the fantastic findings are that the molecules of organisms as far apart as humans and fruit flies are even more similar than the forelimbs of humans and horses.

Apparently, organisms are built on the Lego principle.

We are all made from the same building blocks. It is how they are put together that counts. Go one way with Lego and you have the White House. Go another way, and you have the Monster from the Black Lagoon. Go one way with the molecules and you have fruit flies. Go another way, and you have Harrison Ford.

Just as the vertebrate forelimbs point to evolution, so also - as or even more strongly - do the shared molecules of DNA. That is why Charles Darwin and his theory are worth celebrating.

And now I will break my promise not to mention science and religion. I believe that the human ability to peer into the past as do evolutionists is one of the most wonderful things that we ever do. If ever I wanted proof that although we may be modified monkeys we are nevertheless made in the image of God, this would be it.

(Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University. His recent books include The Evolution-Creation Struggle and Darwinism and its Discontents. Readers may write to him at: Florida State University, Department of Philosophy, Tallahassee, Fla. 32306; e-mail: [email protected] He wrote this for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.)

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Originally published by Michael Ruse Guest Columnist.

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