Politics & Policy

Thumbs Up

President Bush is right about evolution and design.

Opposable thumbs: mighty useful. In fact, we anthropologists put the lowly opposable thumb near the top of physical characteristics that make humans human. Without fully opposable thumbs, we would wrench-less in a world without plumbers, soccer would be the only sport, and the Moonlight Sonata would have to be whistled. The manual dexterity that, when you think about it, makes civilization possible, owes quite a bit to our thumbs.

Well, of course, not just our thumbs. As handy as thumbs are, they are part of an engineered package of exquisitely fine-tuned brain-eye-hand coordination. We can, as a birthright, do myriad things with our hands that are beyond the reach of even the most ingenious chimpanzee. And a good case can be made that the rapidly expanding brain of human ancestors over the last million or so years came about as part of a feedback loop with manual dexterity. As our ancestors learned to make and rely on tools, the edge in the race for survival went to those who were better at it.

At an interview with some reporters from Texas on August 1, President Bush parried a question about whether schools should teach “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution by saying, “I think part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.” By itself, this seems a mild, even innocuous opinion. But that hardly tempered the reaction in the press. The New York Times picked up the story two days later, and we were off to another liberal media cage fight between Outraged Scientists and Unrelenting Creationists.

The Case for Modesty and Restraint

This battle is unnecessary and intellectually irresponsible. To a large degree it is staged by secular Left in effort to maintain its monopolistic control of education and its predominant influence in the sciences. But, in fact, evolution and intelligent design can coexist without the universe cracking asunder. All we need here is a little theoretical modesty and restraint.

A good place to start is to distinguish between the theory of evolution (without the capital E) and Evolution as a grand and, apart from a few rough edges, supposedly comprehensive account of speciation and genetic change. Small-e evolution is an intellectually robust theory that gives coherent order to a huge range of disparate facts. In contrast, capital E Evolution, is a bit illusory. Like a lot of scientific theories, on close inspection it is really a stitched-together fabric of hypotheses. Some of them are central and well-attested, while others are little more than guesswork. Some phenomena such as natural selection and genetic drift are on solid ground; but others like late Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” in which evolution proceeds in widely spaced bursts, are pretty speculative. Evolution (with the capital E) is today far from being a single comprehensive concept. Gould’s last work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, was an attempt to repair that situation with a brand-new synthesis. The jury is still out on whether he succeeded.

While I am a proponent of small-e evolution, I recognize that it doesn’t provide satisfactory answers to some key questions. We don’t have compelling answers to how life began on earth, whether the self-organizing stuff that we recognize as life depends on earth-like chemistry, or whether nature’s profligate complexity is inevitable. Earth was home only to complacent bacterial mats from about 3.5 to 2.5 billion years ago. That’s a run almost as long as Madonna’s career, but it did eventually give way to more complex organisms that could thrive in the presence of oxygen.

We also don’t have any really convincing explanation of why nature split so many organisms into two sexes.

And above all, evolutionary theory hits a wall in trying to explain what happened with the emergence of fully modern humans about 150,000 years ago. We have a tissue of tiny clues, some of the most intriguing of which come from genetics. The picture accepted by most (by no means all) anthropologists is that a tiny population of modern humans–no more than a few hundred–emerged in east Africa and eventually dispersed over the entire world.

What set these people off from our older ancestors, however, is crucial. It wasn’t their thumbs, which, like most of their anatomy, were essentially the same as their immediate predecessors. Give or take some fine points of the cranium, we were human before we were human. But the version of humanity that appeared abruptly on the scene about 150,000 years ago had some strange new quality.

It may have been a mutation that gave rise to fully articulate language; or it could have been a leap in capacity for symbolic or abstract thought. These are the likeliest scientific guesses. The material facts are that the newly emerged form of human being was a prolific inventor. The stone tools made by his predecessors remained unchanged generation to generation for hundreds of thousands of years. An 800,000 year-old hand-ax looks identical to a 200,000 year-old hand-ax: and everyone used exactly the same tools. Intellectual property rights were not at issue. Then suddenly these new humans began to invent new tools and new ways of making tools at an unprecedented pace; different groups of them made different tools; and, before too much longer, began to trade group from group.

The Birth of Culture

We can give a name to what happened: with the biological emergence of modern humans came both the capacity for and the realization of “culture.” Maybe geneticists will, at some point, isolate a gene or genes that make complex, symbol-based culture possible. Indeed, we already see some hints of this in the gene FOXP2, which affects our capacity to learn language and which mutated to its current form about 200,000 years ago.

But to speak of the beginning of culture and the emergence of our species by way of some genetic mutations from anatomically similar ancestors does little to explain the profound mystery of the event. Of course, if we are convinced in advance that genetic mutation is a random, material event, the results of which are sorted out by the struggle for survival, the immense mystery dissolves into happenstance blips in strands of East African DNA, c. 150,000-200,000 years ago.

But at that point, we have moved beyond scientific evolution to doctrinaire Evolution. The randomness of the mutation cannot be demonstrated or proved; it is simply an article of belief, no different in character from a belief that an intelligent Creator nudged the adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine bases of that DNA strand into the right order. Or that he took the clay of archaic homo sapiens and molded Adam in His own image.

At bottom the dispute between Evolutionists and Creationists always comes down to the question, “What is random?” This is the cage that Cardinal Christoph Schonborn rattled in his op-ed in the New York Times, July 7, where he wrote, “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense–an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection–is not.” Now the director of the Vatican Observatory, Father George Coyne, has published a rebuttal in British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, neatly asserting the opposite, and accusing the cardinal of having “darkened the waters” between the Church and science.

Whether the universe is truly random or whether apparent randomness is order-not-yet-apprehended seems pretty clearly a philosophical or theological debate. It will not be settled by the editors of the Boston Globe (“Unintelligent,” editorial August 4), the vaporings of Rev. Barry Lynn from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the numerous respectable scientists who have stepped forward to say, “Sure enough, the universe is random.” How exactly would they know? It is not hard to suspect that beneath this ardent insistence on an unproven proposition lies simple irritation at having to share public space, including schools, with people who inexplicably continue to think that they live in a universe governed by an active God.

Middle Ground

Under the circumstances, I think the sensible middle ground lies just about where President Bush pointed. If students study biology in school, they need know a good bit about evolution with a small e. Beyond that, it wouldn’t hurt them to know about Evolution, Creation (or “Intelligent Design”) as well. I don’t carry a brief for Michael Behe, the intelligent-design proponent at Lehigh University, or the movement that he has started. But I also don’t think science is well served by elevating to the status of unquestionable truth the image of a material universe governed solely by random and otherwise inexplicable events. That’s a worldview, not a scientific conclusion, and it has no better claim to our intellectual assent than views that postulate an underlying purpose, meaning, or destination for humanity.

Actually, a line of argument that depends on seeing events as random is in a rather worse position than one that postulates, even if it can’t prove, underlying order. In science, what’s random today is frequently modeled tomorrow. To base a theory of life on ever-more-emphatic repetition of the idea that, “No, it’s random,” is a bit like stamping your foot and saying, “It’s so because I say it’s so.”

Ironically, the Creationists have come out of this recent round of controversy sounding far more open-minded than some of the scientists and the hard-core secularist advocates of Evolution-and-Nothing-But. If we had the equivalent of a Scopes trial today, I would wager Rev. Barry Lind would get to play the part of William Jennings Bryan, unwilling to think about what he is unwilling to think about.

Meanwhile, across the waters at Seoul National University, Hwang Woo-suk and his colleagues have created Snuppy, a cloned Afghan hound. Experts say the first cloning of a dog clears some technical hurdles for cloning the first human. If and when that occurs, I wonder whether cloned humans will be disposed to see themselves as products of natural selection or of intelligent design? Probably that’s a false set of alternatives. Evolution and intelligent design will have both played a role.

Peter Wood, provost of The King’s College in New York City, is author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.


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