Truth, Understanding, Insight

Misunderstood Evolution

15th February 2006, sjh


For quite some time now, Charles Darwin's theory of the origin of the species through natural selection has been taught as something well understood. However, the preferred model of punctuated equilibrium is often not the one that is taught, leading to a misunderstood evolution.

Changing Evolution

A recent article about the work of professor Jeffrey Schwartz at the University of Pittsburgh highlights this issues. It is titled “Professor challenges evolution”, but that would appear to be a misleading title. The article shows that the professor does in fact hold to a theory of evolution, but just one that is different to that proposed by Darwin, with statements such as “Modern cell biology doesn't support Darwinism.” He also notes how the fossil record doesn't agree with the traditional Darwin theory and remarks that “It's not like fish developed bony teeth one piece at a time. It happened suddenly.”

The striking thing about this article isn't so much Schwartz's findings, but rather that they should be considered revolutionary. These problems with Darwinism have been known in the scientific community for many years, and for 30 years or so the theory of evolution has already adapted to try to explain them.

The term “Punctuated equilibrium” is used to describe an evolution process where over the bulk of the lifetime of a species there are very few changes, but that when do changes occur, they happen comparatively rapidly. The comparative timescales then explain why transitional fossils are not found. One of the key ideas thought up to explain why this would happen is geographic isolation, where a new species develop in a small isolated environment, and then once they became large, species properties are unlikely to change further in the large population.

This is an explanation devised to explain the lack transitional fossils, and as such does a good job of it. It is also difficult to test or falsify because it assumes that we won't be able to find the evidence.

Disjoint Theory

Current education suggests a bait-and-switch technique with the teaching of the theory of evolution. At an introductory level, the traditional Phyletic Gradualism of a simplified Darwinian model is generally taught. It results in a fairly neat and simple theory of a very long process of natural selection resulting in the species we see today. It is also taught that the fossil record supports this evolution. So we end up with the appearance of a simple logical theory that is supported by evidence dug out of the ground. It is only later that the necessary details of the more modern theory are considered.

The problem is that neither theory is simple and logical from the view of both evolution as well paleontology. It seems when simplistic neatness is required, one theory is presented, and when details are required, a different one is presented. That gives a distorted view of how effective evolution is in explaining the natural environment.

Creation Context

A cynic may suggest that the reason Punctuated equilibrium is not promoted in popular science is that it could weaken the strength of the evolutionary theory. An observation that speciation occurred comparatively rapidly in the fossil record, and that intermediate fossils won't be found leaves species origin through evolution in somewhat a similar position to creationism or Intelligent Design.

One form of creationism is that there have been many successive creations on the earth by God, and that the Bible describes only detail from the most recent of those. Such a view is still consistent with a literal reading of the Bible. This theory explains the existence of the fossil record in that there have been a wide variety of species over the period of time. It would even be logical that the form of each successive creation should follow the previous but with some changes. Further, because of the duration of a creation period, the effect seen in a fossil record would be very similar to that expected from Punctuated equilibrium. That is significant because Punctuated Equilibrium is a theory that has been specifically designed to match the fossil record.

The science community objects to this theory of creation as being a scientific theory on the basis that it isn't falsifiable. In other words science requires that a theory be testable and that there be some experiment possible that could show it to be false if it is indeed false. As the extent of the powers of God can't be quantified, it can't generally be falsified in that way. Note though that it isn't wrong just because it can't be falsified, it is just that it isn't considered scientific.

Even if being falsifiable were an important thing, the theory of Evolution is also suffering in this area. It has had to be changed in such a way to explain that evidence may not be found. In this sense the most plausible theory of Evolution is susceptible to the same criticism as ideas on creation.

So while much is made of the logical simplicity and the evidence of the theories on Evolution, the two just don't go together. As theories devised to try to explain the origin of species in the absence of a creator, they are the best available. Yet once looking post the glossy presentation, they really aren't as believable as advertised.