Most of the loudest and most vociferous responses to my last article were predictable. Several topics trigger immediate, irrational, and emotional responses. The mention, or at least the questioning, of Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory, is one of them. All I got was arm-waving and references, but not one piece of empirical evidence to prove the theory. This is the same response you get when you ask for empirical evidence to prove the anthropogenic global warming theory (AGW).
There is another parallel between the two. Many call AGW a hoax, but it is not, partly because a hoax has a humorous component and there is nothing funny about the deception and its impact. A real and very effective scientific hoax involved the obsession with proving Darwin’s theory. It is called the Piltdown Man Hoax after the quarry in which the event occurred. As a traditional hoax, it was designed to prick pomposity, to underscore the weakness of unjustified and arrogant claims, to open eyes closed by obsession. The irony is the victim of the hoax, Charles Dawson, was determined to find the so-called ‘missing link. He sought the empirical fossil evidence that would provide the final link in the evolution of man from apes.
Dawson was so obsessed with his search and the belief that such a fossil existed that he was easy prey. It is this kind of blind obsession that is the sad situation with all those arm-waving supporters of Darwin’s theory. What is amazing is that the academic and professional world of museums and societies believed Piltdown for 41 years. There were doubters, but they were brushed aside. Eventually, in 1953, the hoax was revealed when it was shown that the Piltdown skull comprised a cleverly aged mandible and some teeth of an orangutan and the cranium of a human.
A major problem with this search for human ancestry is the entire fossil record more than 1 million years old fits on a dining room table. It is as sparse as the data for anthropogenic warming. However, this is only one part of the entire problem of determining evolutionary theory from the fossil record.
Estimates indicate that on average it takes 15 million in a species for one to survive in the fossil record. How many of today’s species will show up in tomorrow’s record? Don’t forget that is in species that have parts that can become fossilized. A remarkable discovery put this entire issue into perspective in a quarry called the Burgess Shales. This is on the boundary between the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Ironically, the original discovery by Charles Walcott occurred in 1909 before the Piltdown hoax. He recognized the importance of the discovery because it consisted of soft-bodied creatures that rarely survive in the fossil record. Unfortunately, the full significance of these fossils was not recognized until 1962 when Alberto Simonetta re-examined the fossils and realized the full extent of their significance.
Today, we are no further ahead because we have no idea how many species exist on our planet. Of course, that does not prevent the fanciful speculators who will do what Mark Twain said,
“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”
Consider the fact that we don’t know how many plant or animal species exist. A 2011 estimate said approximately 8.7 million, 6.5 on land and 2.2 in the ocean. This sounds definitive until you learn that the error range is ± 1.3 million. In a recent ten-year span more than a million new species were discovered. How many remain undiscovered? PLoS Biologysuggests,
“…a staggering 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued.”
In 2012, a story appeared with the headline, “One Million New Plankton Species Found.” The expedition led by Dr. Chris Bowler was actually looking at the uptake of carbon dioxide in the oceans. Bowler said, “It’s the first time that anyone’s done this expedition looking specifically for plankton life, and that’s why we found so many.” How does that change the formulae for CO2 cycles in the Earth’s system?
It is not just about small species. There are stories all the time.
• 2010 report said, “30 unknown species found in Ecuador’s highland forests by a team of U.S. and Ecuadorian researchers,”
• 2010 report said, Over 200 New Species Found In Papua New Guinea. The lead scientist said, there are, “large areas of New Guinea that are pretty much unexplored biologically.”
• 2012 report“New species of monkey identified in Africa.”
The importance of the Burgess Shales event entered the public awareness with Stephen Jay Gould’s book, “Wonderful Life” and a cover story in National Geographic. The discovery pushed the origin of the earliest species back 50 million years before the previous estimates. It also seemed to indicate a different evolution scenario than the Darwin tree of life. It suggested that there was an explosion of life with a multitude of species most of which became extinct. In other words, it was a decreasing number of species, not increasing. By the way, it was Darwin who likened his ideas to a tree. In his comments on Alfred Russel Wallace’s work he said, it was nothing new and “Uses my simile of a tree (but) it seems all creation with him.” But more of that later.
I was always disturbed by the number of biology students who didn’t know the definition of species. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition.
A group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, ranking below a genus and denoted by a Latin binomial, e.g., Homo sapiens.
That sounds clear and concise, but it is not the case even among today’s species. It is even more difficult in the fossil record. For example, we know that mules and horses cannot produce viable offspring. If we found such similar species in the fossil record, there is no way of knowing. How many other natural hybrids exist today or in the fossil record?
The designation of species originated with the system of classification developed by Carolus Linnaeus and known as the Linnaean System. Classification systems are a wonderful idea for trying to make sense out of a plethora of data. The trouble is, like all structures, they are rigid and fail to accommodate new discoveries. The classic example that challenged the Linnaean system was the Platypus. Not surprisingly, and appropriate to our story, many scientists considered it a fake and a hoax. Just like with Piltdown some believed an Asian taxidermist sewed a beak onto a water-dwelling mammal. The reality is the Linnaean Classification is a fanciful, arbitrary rigid system that determined most thinking about evolution.
Some of the more fanciful, such as birds evolving from dinosaurs illustrate the problem (Figure1).
I don’t mind being descended from a gorilla. They are better than some of the relatives I have, however, many people do. That resentment speaks to the issue Darwin knew about but never dealt with effectively.
Alfred Russel Wallace published a paper on natural selection in 1858, a year before Darwin’s Origin of Species. Some say it pushed Darwin to publish. Others say it caused Darwin’s supporters to push for publication. Wallace’s paper challenged Charles Lyell because it opposed his idea that species were immutable.
The ongoing Wallace and Darwin debate is not over the idea of natural selection. It focused on the place of humans in the pattern of evolution. Wallace publicly supported Darwin’s work. In 1889, he published a book titled, Darwinism. His differences with Darwin emerged from a different area, the large gap between humans and all other species, especially apes. He said a theory must include an explanation for that difference and Darwin evolutionary ideas didn’t. Darwin tried to address the issue twelve years after Origin in his book The Descent of Man. He failed. He did not explain how humans are superior to every other species. His ideas led to the satire about how if you had a number of chimpanzees working on typewriters they would eventually type Shakespeare’s plays (Figure 3).
Former genetics professor David Suzuki provides a good example of the bizarre thinking when he said,
“Economics is a very species – chauvinistic idea. No other species on earth – and there are may be 30 million of them – has had the nerve to put forth a concept called economics, in which one species, us, declares the right to put value on everything else on earth, in the living and non-living world.”
He is incorrect about the number of species. He is wrong about putting a value on things. All animals put a value on everything. Can I eat it? Only humans put other values on things. No other animal could even think of a concept like economics. Instead of realizing that humans are achieving success and adaptability better than any other species, as Darwin suggested, he considers these as failures. He doesn’t even see the philosophical contradictions in his view.
The question is what is really behind all of this illogic and attacks on anyone who questions Darwinism or the prevailing wisdom of his Evolutionary Theory? The gap between humans and any other animals is one of them. It is so great Wallace had the audacity to introduce the idea of what we now call “intelligent design.” His challenges are part of the questions today that speak about the origin of the Universe. The problem for Darwin and the Big Bang theory people is that the ultimate question remains. Who or what created the material for the bang and who triggered it.
Then there is the problem of accurate dating. I recall at a conference on the fur trade, a historian presented a paper about a sequence of events he claimed changed the pattern of exploration. His sequence derived from entries in the Hudson’s Bay Company journals prior to 1752. He didn’t know that in September of that year the government removed eleven days to the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Hubert Lamb devoted a large section of his Volume 2 Climate Present, Past and Future to discussing the methods, limitations, and importance of both absolute and relative dating. The problems exist across all attempts to reconstruct the past, from climate to fossil records.
Incorrect dating makes any attempt to determine cause and effect impossible. Relative dating is when you have a specific date for a known event and can say whether something occurred before or after. Absolute dating is when you have a specific natural measure such as rate of conversion of radioactive material from one form to another. The two most common are radiocarbon and Potassium/Argon (K/A) dating. This has caused problems in climate reconstructions before. For example, the Milankovitch sequence indicated ice conditions in a region of Alaska then radiocarbon on fossilized trees indicated they were growing at the same time. This was a major reason why Milankovitch, who was initially accepted, was later rejected. In my early career mention of Milankovitch immediately triggered derision. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I attended a conference and Milankovitch was mentioned and nobody reacted. climate conference. Of course, it turned out the fancy new ‘scientific’ measure of carbon dating was wrong because it assumed a constant rate of solar energy output. As recently as 2012 a new calibration method developed to provide more accurate reconstructions. Then, in the first week of June 2018, we learn,
Archaeologist Sturt Manning and colleagues have revealed variations in the radiocarbon cycle at certain periods of time, affecting frequently cited standards used in archaeological and historical research relevant to the southern Levant region (Israel, southern Jordan and Egypt). These variations, or offsets, of up to 20 years in the calibration of precise radiocarbon dating could be related to climatic conditions.
The problems with K/A dating are more profound, especially for the fossil record. A study in Hawaii gave an age for rock of 2.3 ± 0.3 million years. I don’t care about the specific age except that it is relatively recent geologically. What troubles me is the ± 0.3 million years. That is 300,000 years or a full error range of 600,000 years. How much happened in the last 600,000 years? Of course, as you go back in time the error increases. A one-million-year error range is not unusual.
It is interesting that when you search the web for information of accuracy of geologic dating methods, several appear that are sponsored by religious groups. Some specifically identify themselves as creationists.
I am not arguing for creationism, but it appears to influence science so that there is irrational and blind determination to confirm Darwin’s Theory. Ironically, we witness belief in the environment and AGW taking religious, blind belief, positions. So it is with Darwin. The minute you even raise the topic you get hysterical arm waving responses, with no empirical evidence to support their position.
People outside of science have warned about these irrational reactions. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, speaking through his character Sherlock Holmes wrote,
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
Alternatively, as Mark Twain said,
Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.