August 27, 2011

Celebrate Your Inner Mammal! - New Evidence and a Comment on American Fundamentalist Politics

Fossil Redefines Mammal History
Mammals' Large Brains Evolved for Smell
Dinosaur Demise Allowed Mammals to "Go Nuts"

The relationship between humans and other animals is too often ignored or downplayed.  Many focus on our species' accomplishments in art, music, literature, philosophy, and architecture and conclude that such feats are far beyond the capability of nonhuman animals.  Therefore, they say, these abilities make us very different from other animals - a difference of kind rather than degree.

Creationists, particularly those who follow the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, likewise claim we are very special and therefore must be of supernatural origins.  Contemporary American politicians such as Texas governor Rick Perry bolster their fundamentalist followers' supernatural beliefs by expressing the view that evolution is "only a theory with many gaps" and that "God put us here."  (See "Rick Perry, Evangelicals and Evolution As a 'Theory's That's Out There'." See also "Republicans Against Science." by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, August 28, 2011.)

What does Perry know about evolution, the foundation of biological science, and what convinces him that God put us here?  A. Apparently little and B. Faith in the two thousand-year-old beliefs of a Bronze Age, Middle Eastern sheep-herding tribe.

Either Perry is profoundly ignorant about science and has special knowledge of our origins from God, or he is knowledgeable about science, including the evolutionary history of our planet, and is nevertheless deceitfully pandering for votes among Christian fundamentalists.  More worrisome, maybe he really believes evolution to be unproven and that there is an all-powerful and all-knowing supernatural being (akin to a human-like male) who created all and is watching over us on this very, very tiny speck of matter we call Earth.  I am shocked that we would for an instant tolerate such a man asking the American people to allow him to occupy the most powerful office on Earth, and fear that we just might vote him in.

Scientists and scientific free-thinkers are often criticized as being arrogant for their evidence-based extrapolated postulate of the Big Bang origin of the Universe, and their evidence-based acceptance of the emergence and evolution of Life on Earth.  The truth is such thinkers go to great lengths to acknowledge the limits of their provisional knowledge.  Likewise, they almost never assume expertise in areas outside their evidence-based knowledge.  Skepticism and agnosticism are among their virtues.  Perry, in commenting on something he obviously knows very little about (evolution) and his refusal to acknowledge that he really has no way of knowing for certain if in fact God placed us here on earth, proves himself and his ilk to be those who are arrogant in these matters.

Scientific secularists, on the other hand look at human physical and behavioral characteristics and see great similarities between us and other living organisms on Earth, the mammals being the group with which we have the most in common.  These characteristics include: cellular makeup, tissues and organs, bilateral anatomical symmetry, four-limb body structure, homeothermy, body hair, nervous and skeletal systems, cardio-vascular blood system, the five senses, respiration, movement, and sexual reproduction via live birth by means a uterus and placenta, to mention only a few of the most basic traits.  There are many more characteristics we have in common with other mammals, including genetic material, chemical composition and physiological functioning.

Such similarities in mammalian form and function provide a compelling argument that we humans originated and evolved on Earth as one among many other animals.  That any uniqueness we humans possess relative to other mammals is the result of reproductive isolation and our ancestors' successful adaptions to changing environmental challenges.  Nevertheless, the human "uniqueness" that many humans are eager to crow about did not arise de novo, rather it emerged as extensions or elaborations of fundamental mammalian characteristics.  For secularists this provisional argument is sufficient, humbling, motivating and awe-inspiring.  For others, it is insufficient and a threat to their desire to believe in all-explaining supernatural powers. (See "Evolution Threatens Christianity" by Paula Kirby, The Washington Post.)

Secularists and scientists do not claim that in the course of mammalian evolution the Abrahamic God did not intervene and grant special mental abilities to humans and give them souls, for that matter.  They either do not believe or accept that this happened, or regard the probability of it happening to be extremely unlikely.  Either way, they make no claim of certainty that it did not.  The secular, scientific position is that there is no scientific evidence to support the divine intervention assertion.  However, if such a divine, supernatural alteration of the evolutionary history of mammals was proven to have occurred, using the scientific standard of evidence and testing, then all scientifically-derived evidence and all scientific explanations based on such evidence, including the theory of evolution, must be drastically altered.

Such a new "divine evolutionary history" based on "intervention science" would then have to include both scientific standards of evidence and testing and conjecture based on religious revelation, tradition, and myth.  This would no longer be science, it would be religion.  It would be religion because all the observations, evidence and experimental results of "normal" science could be "legitimately" challenged and overturned under the claim that "God did it" or because a canonical text, cleric or theologist said that He did.

The only creationist explanation that would allow the scientific, evidence-based evolutionary explanation to remain intact and valid would be one that required the purported divine intervention events conform to scientific standards of evidence and testing.  So far, every creationist or other supernaturally-based attempt to do so, most notably the relatively recent creationist notion of "intelligent design," has failed to satisfy these standards.  The scientific model of mammalian evolution continues to remain intact.  However, unlike the closed absolute truth of religion's "intelligent design," all evolutionary science explanations remain provisional and open to new evidence, testing and revision.  It is not coincidental that such scientific theories and model are consistent with what has been clear to most people in history despite efforts to find the invariable laws of nature - overall, despite our provisional but nevertheless extremely valuable scientific understandings of some of its processes, the Universe, including Life on Earth, is ever-changing, contingent, serendipitous, and unpredictable.

It is the epitome of arrogance to claim that we are not biologically and ontologically related to other mammals, that our accomplishments are so grand they "prove" we humans are a supernatural creation.  The similarities we share with other animals, especially those we group in the taxonomic class Mammalia and order Primates, should be a comfort and inspiration to us, not something we ignore, deny or use as a justification for demeaning science and accepting the existence a supernatural being and a supernatural belief system. 

For more information on our close relationship to all other living organisms see:

How Did Mammals Evolve?, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
The Mammalian Radiations:  An Analysis of Trends in Evolution, Adaptation, and Behavior by John F. Eisenberg (1981)
Evolutionary Tree of Life for Mammals Greatly Improved, Science Daily, September 23, 2011
Mammalogy, Fifth Edition by Terry A. Vaughan, et al. (2010)
Your Inner Fish:  A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin (2008)
The Ancestor's Tale:  A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins (2004)
The Greatest Show on Earth:  The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (2009)

For a discussion on claiming to hold both scientific and creationist views, see my post:

I Accept Science AND Believe In Supernatural Beings - Is This Possible And Is It Too Late For A Secular Global Morality And Civilization To Emerge

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