American Atheists, Inc.
In the words of Harvard biologist-paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, “Creation science is an oxymoron.”An oxymoron (lit., “a wise fool”) is a contradiction in terms.
(2) It falsely presumes that the Genesis creation myths (there are two!) are the only existing supernatural accounts of origins, and ignores the contradictions between these two accounts. Of course, every primitive culture in the world has produced its own account of human origins, and creationists are obliged, after they “disprove” naturalistic, evolutionary theories, to show that their own mythology is true. They must produce evidence that green plants existed before the sun was “created,” and that all life and all of nature came into existence in six days.  They should show the superiority of their myth to the Native American story about Old Man Coyote and the Chinese myth of the cosmic egg. If they wish us to accept the notion that any type of supernatural account is to be taken seriously, they must be willing to show how the Jewish “theory” is superior to the Egyptian “theory” that the world began with masturbatory activity on the part of the sun god. Indeed, once they abandon the canons of proof standard in the natural sciences and allow the possibility of supernatural shenanigans, it would seem that they are obligated to show that all other mythologies known are false. However the logicians may come down on this question, the fact remains that the creation myths recorded in the first and second chapters of Genesis are but two of a myriad of such myths, and creationists must find evidence to support one or the other of the mutually exclusive biblical accounts. The burden of proof now rests with the creationists.(3) It misuses the term theory. Creationists either use the term pejoratively (“evolution is only a theory”), or they misapply the term to creationism. In scientific usage, a theory is the highest form of scientific understanding. A theory is an explanatory hypothesis which has passed test after test, and is still the best available explanation of the facts in question. In the case of creationism, however, those components of the apology which can be tested (e.g., the idea that the earth is only six thousand years old and was covered by a shell of water in the year 2,348 B.C.E.) have been tested and found to be demonstrably false – showing that creationism is not a viable theory, because viable theories have to pass tests. On the other hand, those components of creationism which involve certain types of magical events (e.g., the divine creation of a young universe with all of its components bearing the false imprint of great age) make the claims of creationism untestable – making creationism not a theory at all, because theories must be testable!
We have pointed out that creationists confuse the question “Has evolution occurred?” with the question “What is the cause of evolution?” The scientific answer to the first question is, of course, “yes,” and the answer to the second question (at least in part) is “natural selection.” What logic and evidence leads scientists – and Atheists – to these answers?
The Logic Of Evolution The conclusion that evolution has occurred is drawn from two simple observations:
Observation 1: Living things come only from living things. Spontaneous generation is not possible when living things are already in existence .
Observation 2: Fossil remains show that living things in the remote past were very different from living things today.
Conclusion: Life has changed through time (evolved).
A dramatic proof of the thesis that life has changed through time is seen in the fossil record of the vertebrates, animals having a segmented backbone. At the beginning of the Cambrian Period (570-500 million years ago), there were no vertebrates at all. Later in the Cambrian, problematic forms appeared which seem to have been related to the vertebrates, but showed distant affinities with the echinoderms as well. (Echinoderms today are represented by starfish, sea lilies, sea cucumbers, etc.; embryologically they appear to compose the phylum most closely related to the Chordata, the phylum to which vertebrates belong.) Toward the end of the Cambrian Period, the first vertebrates appeared: the ostracoderms, jawless fishes possessed of a bony armor plate and having flattened bodies apparently adapted to a bottom-feeding way of life.
According to the fossil record, vertebrates went without jaws for many millions of years. Finally, at the beginning of the Devonian Period (395-345 million years ago), the first fish with jaws entered their remains into the record in the rocks. At the very end of the Devonian or the beginning of the Carboniferous Period (345-280 million years ago), the first primitive amphibians arose. These fish-like animals differed from their air-breathing fish ancestors mostly in their elaboration of the bony structure of the paired appendages – converting fins into hands and feet – and in reinforcement of the structures attaching the paired appendages to the spinal column. The first reptiles did not appear until the last half of the Carboniferous Period.
To give the lie to creationist claims that there are no connecting-link fossils to join the vertebrate classes, the Permian Period (280-225 million years ago) saw the appearance of an entire order of animals, the mammal-like reptiles (Therapsida), which can be seen to change with time from typical, primitive reptiles, into primitive mammals. It was not until late in the Triassic Period (225-190 million years ago) that the therapsid-mammal transmutation was complete. Contrary to the first chapter of Genesis, which claims that the first mammals appeared on the earth a mere twenty-four hours after the first fish, the first mammals did not appear on earth until more than 300 million years of fish evolution had transpired!
Birds, which, according to both creation myths in Genesis, were created on the same day as fish, do not enter the fossil record until the Jurassic Period (190-136 million years ago). Representing an ultimate variation on the dinosaur theme, birds trace their descent from reptiles quite different from those ancestral to the mammals. Contrary to the claims of some creationists, evolutionists do not claim that reptiles evolved into birds, and birds evolved into mammals!
Even though the first mammals appeared in the Triassic Period, forms for which the English language has names would not appear until the late Cretaceous (136-65 million years ago), when opossum-like forms appeared, the Eocene Epoch (60-40 million years ago), when primitive whales originated, and the Oligocene Epoch (40-25 million years ago), when apes, monkeys, and primitive grazing mammals appeared.
The record in the rocks, thus, is evidence either for fishes evolving into birds and mammals, or it is evidence of thousands of successive “special creations” – magical replacements of successive faunas by slightly different ones. Curiously, the latter interpretation is as unbiblical as it is unscientific.
If either of the biblical myths were true, all types of vertebrates – living types of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes – would be found along with bacteria and trilobites at the very beginning of the fossil record and would be extractable from all rock layers of later ages. But of course, nothing could be farther from reality. The infamous “gaps in the fossil record,” adduced by creationists as evidence against evolution, are actually a devastating refutation of the idea that all forms of life were miraculously zapped onto the earth at the same time!
The Logic Of Natural Selection Since creationists in their attacks of evolution in general, and of natural selection in particular, usually obfuscate the scientific principles involved and generally substitute a straw man which is easier to ridicule, it is important that we state clearly just what it is that science has to say on the topic of how new species come to be. The modern (“synthetic”) theory of natural selection consists of a tightly interwoven fabric of observations and logical conclusions drawn from them. In a nutshell, the structure of the theory is the following:
Observation 1: All living things tend to reproduce in geometric progression, so that if all offspring survived, the entire earth would be overrun by them.
Observation 2: In fact, however, the earth is NOT so overrun. The populations of various species remain approximately constant in size from century to century, due to the finite resources of the environment.
Conclusion A: There must be a competition for the available resources of the environment, a “struggle for existence.”
Observation 3: Heritable variations (mutations) are observed to occur spontaneously, from time to time, in populations of all species.
Observation 4: In a given environment, some of these variations are helpful in the struggle for existence, and others are harmful or neutral.
Conclusion B: A natural selection of individuals will result. Those with helpful mutations will survive and expand in numbers, and those with harmful mutations will tend to perish and be reduced in numbers.
Observation 5: The source of inheritable changes is either (1) change in the sequence of chemical “bases” in the DNA molecules making up an organism’s genes, (2) rearrangement of genes on chromosomes, or (3) multiplication or deletion of genes or chromosomes.
Observation 6: Physically and chemically speaking, there is no limit to the amount of base changing possible in DNA or the amount of gene rearrangement which can take place.
Conclusion C: There will be no limit to the amount of variation possible in any given species. Given enough time, and changing environmental conditions , mutation will add to mutation, and any species will gradually change into one or more new species. As mutations cause greater and greater cumulative change, and as sexual recombination assembles novel hereditary ensembles, species will turn into new genera, genera into new families, etc.
With the exception of the observations concerning changes in DNA and chromosomes as the source of evolutionary variation, the theory above was discovered by Charles Darwin in the middle of the last century. Darwin came to his theory grudgingly – he had originally been a creationist himself. But the facts of nature which he uncovered in his trip around the world on H.M.S. Beagle forced him to give up the Genesis mythology in favor of evolutionary science, and made him formulate the theory of natural selection.
It is not often remembered that Darwin was not the only person to discover the principle of natural selection. At the same time that Darwin was formulating his theory, Alfred Russell Wallace – completely independent of Darwin, and half a world away – was forced by his study of the plants and animals of the Malay Archipelago to conclude that evolution had occurred, and that natural selection was the motive force!
The lesson to be learned from this is that the facts of nature compel unbiased minds to conclude that evolution has occurred, and that natural selection is at least a part of the cause of evolutionary change. (Population size and genetic isolation of populations are also important factors affecting the degree to which evolutionary change will occur.)
As we examine the bizarre details of the Genesis creation myth, however, we must ask: Is it conceivable that any person not already aware of the first Genesis myth could go out into the world of nature and conclude that green plants came into existence before the sun? That birds existed before reptiles? Without knowledge of the second Genesis myth, who would come up with the idea that man is older than both plants and animals, but that woman did not come into existence until the last animal species had appeared? Without being brainwashed by the Noah’s Ark tale, what geologist would conclude that the whole planet was covered by a shell of water 4,334 years ago? What independent observer would conclude that the kiwi, which can neither swim nor fly, came to New Zealand from Mt. Ararat in Turkey, but couldn’t make it to Greece or Australia? Could anyone conclude that there was once a “firmament” in the sky — with windows in it, and water above it?
Of course not. But we can be quite sure that even if the creationist legions of darkness should succeed in eradicating all knowledge of Darwin’s theory, honest men and women of the future studying the facts of nature would discover it anew. This is because evolutionary science is science, and is true in the sense that it is testable and accords with the facts of nature. The creationist dogmas, however, are not science and – to the extent that they are testable – are contradicted by the testimony of nature.
Theistic Evolution While it is nothing less than scandalous that creationist beliefs have survived into the Twentieth Century, we must also express our embarrassment at the fact that there are many people who, despite the fact that they are relatively well schooled in evolutionary science, believe in something known as theistic evolution. This is the view that evolution has, in fact, occurred, but it has been directed by a supernatural power. The long road from jawless fishes, to fishes with jaws, to amphibians, to reptiles, to mammal-like reptiles, to mammals, to Adolf Hitler or the Ayatollah Khomeini was, they must avow, all the unfolding of a divinely guided plan. Theists must accept the plagues produced by evolution as part of their god’s plan. Not only can such a view be a bar to progress, it can be a direct road to madness of the type exemplified by the case of Simon “Stylites,” the quintessential “saint” who lived atop a pillar until he developed maggoty, purulent wounds in his flesh. When a maggot got pushed out of one of the pullulating wounds in his body, he put it back into the wound and preached it a sermon. God had given the “worm” his flesh to eat, he admonished, and the creature should not be ungrateful!
The best thing that can be said about the theistic evolution idea is that it is not contradicted by the facts of nature. But of course, it could not be contradicted by any facts, if all the facts of nature are precisely what a god has ordained. Alas for the theistic evolutionists, this places the “theory” outside the realm of science, since scientific statements must be testable.
The idea of theistic evolution suffers from still another serious defect: it violates Ockham’s Razor. This is the principle in logic that basic assumptions should not be multiplied beyond necessity. If natural forces alone are adequate to account for the course of evolution, why posit additional supernatural forces? Such forces are superfluous. It is simpler to stick with the observable, measurable forces of nature.
The idea of theistic evolution is associated, it would appear, with an emotional immaturity that makes men and women unable to accept the fact that they are probably alone in the universe, that they must find meaning and fulfillment among the comrades – both human and nonhuman – with whom they share the planet. Mature personalities can accept the world for what it is: uncreated and unconscious. Constrained only by the limits of the laws of nature, the mature mind may do all in its power “To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,” and then “remold it nearer to the heart’s desire” . Atheists know that cancer and tapeworms are not parts of a divine plan. Atheists are completely free to do something about such plagues – and they are doing it!
 According to Bishop Ussher’s chronology, often printed in the margins of King James Bibles, this occurred in the year 4,004 BC. Recently, however, Ussher’s chronology has been corrected by Eugene Faulstich, a creationist at the “Chronology-History Research Institute,” in Spencer, Iowa. Using a computer, and ignoring various contradictory dates found in his bible, Faulstich has computed that the world began on a Sunday, 18/19 March, 4001 B.C.E.!
 Practically the only known apparent exception to this has been the ridiculous attempts of creationists to find fossil human footprints in the Cretaceous rocks of the Paluxy Creek-Glen Rose region of Texas. This work has been of such embarrassingly low quality that even the creationist leaders have been forced to admit that no human tracks have been recovered, despite the enormous numbers of bible-believers who have swarmed over the countryside, destroying scientifically valuable dinosaur trails in their quest for antediluvian traces of Homo Sapiens.
 Or in one day, if the second creation story in Genesis (Chapter 2, verse 4 et seq.) be the one believed.
 Life cannot originate spontaneously now for at least two reasons: (1) The oxidizing atmosphere rapidly degrades any organic compounds before they can aggregate to form prebiotic complexes with life-like properties. (2) Existing microbes and other life-forms consume as food any prebiotic molecules starting out on the long biochemical pathway leading to truly living systems. Neither of these roadblocks to spontaneous generation existed before life had formed. The oxygen in our atmosphere is placed there by photosynthetic organisms such as plants and algae, so the primordial terrestrial atmosphere was almost completely devoid of oxygen until these types of organisms arose.
 Without changing conditions, the rate of evolutionary change is likely to be slow and the extent of change small. This is because helpful mutations will often tend to be disbursed in large populations and because natural selection will tend to produce organisms optimally adapted – or nearly so – to particular conditions. In such circumstances, further changes arising will tend to be maladaptive, and evolutionary stasis (stagnation) will result. Only when circumstances change, and new “job openings” appear, will natural selection proceed rapidly to produce significant changes. The theory of “Punctuated Equilibria,” an updated version of Darwin’s theory universally misunderstood and misrepresented by creationists, holds that natural selection does not proceed at a slow, uniform rate. Rather, evolution involves long periods of little or no measurable change (stasis) “punctuated” by brief periods of intense changes – guided, of course, by natural selection.
 Edward Fitzgerald, The Rub�iy�t of Omar Khayy�m.
Copyright 2005 American Atheists, Inc. All rights reserved.
The intransigence of a majority of orthodox Christians to accept the concept of “evolution” testifies to the power of religious memefication of the mind. Yet fundamentalist Christians will condemn the bigotry of Hindus, or Taoist, or Buddhists, or Islam for their beliefs and never even relect upon their own. Hence, to be able to refer to Stephen Jay Gould, a world renowned palaeontologist’s views on evolution is a welcome weapon in the armoury. His arguments are solid and well expressed and will remain on record here.
Stephen Jay Gould
World-renowned, popularising palaeontologist who, controversially, revised Darwin’s theories and took a political stand on science
- Steven Rose
- The Guardian,
Profesor Stephen Jay Gould, who has died of cancer aged 60, was an unlikely figure to have been canonised in his lifetime by the US Congress, which named him as one of America’s “living legends”.
A palaeontologist, he was based for most of his life at the museum of comparative zoology (MCZ) at Harvard, where, since 1982, he had been Alexander Agassiz professor of zoology. But he was best known to the public through his unbroken sequence of 300 monthly essays in Natural History magazine, which began in 1974 and ended only last year; they were republished in a seemingly unending stream of books, translated into dozens of languages and bought by their hundreds of thousands.
A stylish writer, Gould characterised each essay by deriving a seemingly abstruse point in natural history or palaeontology via a sideways look at a novel, a building, or, often, a reference to his lifelong enthusiasm for baseball. He once illuminated the peculiar evolutionary phenomenon in which more recently evolved species within a family group steadily decrease in size by comparing it to how the manufacturers of Hershey bars avoided price rises by making the bars smaller while keeping the costs the same.
As a scientific essayist, Gould’s only peers were “Darwin’s bulldog”, Thomas Huxley, in the 19th century and JBS Haldane in the 1930s and 40s. The comparison with Haldane is apt in two further ways; both made fundamental contributions to evolutionary theory, and both were politically engaged both within science and in the broader political arena. Gould’s critique of the pseudoscience of claims concerning the inheritance of intelligence, developed in one of his best-known books, The Mismeasure Of Man (1981), became a major source for anti-racist campaigners.
But Gould was no mere word-spinner; as a major public intellectual and powerful public speaker, he could be seen at demonstrations and on picket lines, especially during the 1960s and 70s. This was the birth of what became known as the radical science movement (Science for the People), initially in response to the Vietnam war. The movement, and Gould along with it, later became embroiled in the cultural fights that raged around the publication, in 1975, of EO Wilson’s Sociobiology, the forerunner to today’s evolutionary psychology, and seen by many as offering a scientific validation for social inequalities in class, gender and race.
Some saw this as a specifically Harvard-based battle, as Gould occupied the MCZ basement and his colleague, and sometimes co-author, Richard Lewontin, the first floor – with Wilson sandwiched between them on the ground floor. Wilson became distinctly uneasy when entering the elevator in case he might have to confront Gould, Lewontin or any of their student supporters.
However, for Gould the issues were never just about politics, but also about a different view of the mechanisms and processes of evolution, a view that reached its clearest expression in his last and greatest book, The Structure Of Evolutionary Theory – at more than 1,400 pages, the greatest in every sense – which was published only last month.
This is the most comprehensive statement of Gould’s Darwinian revisionism, a revisionism that began in graduate school when he and fellow student Niles Eldredge developed their critique of one of Darwin’s central theses, that of gradual evolutionary change. To the concern of his many friends and supporters, who had argued that speciation was likely to occur by abrupt transitions, Darwin had insisted that “nature does not make leaps”.
Gould and Eldredge re-addressed this question, pointing out that the fossil record was one of millions of years of stasis, punctuated by relatively brief periods of rapid change – hence punctuated equilibrium. To Gould’s fury, as a loyal child of Darwin, the theory was misappropriated by creationists, whom he attacked with characteristic vigour. However, in one of his most recent books, Rocks Of Ages (1999), he attempted to come to terms with a religion more reconciled to science, reversing the proposition of rendering unto Caesar by allowing religion its independent domain.
But punctuated equilibrium made many traditional evolutionists unhappy too; they saw it as evidence of Gould’s alleged Marxism – revolution rather than evolution.
Orthodox biologists also tended to resent the insouciance with which Gould upstaged them. Lecturing at the Royal Society, in London in the 1970s, he treated the assembled grandees to an account of the architecture of the San Marco cathedral, in Venice, in order to make the point that many seemingly adaptive features of an organism are, in fact, the byproducts of more fundamental structural constraints. The mosaic-filled spaces (spandrels) between the arches on which the dome stands may look as if they were planned, but they are merely space-fillers, albeit ones put to artistic and religious use.
Many features of an organism (its phenotype) may also be structural spandrels, others may be “exaptations” – another term coined by Gould, with Elizabeth Vrba, to describe features arising in one context but subsequently put to a different use. Feathers, originally evolved as a heat regulatory device among the reptilian ancestors of today’s birds, are a good example. But to evolutionists, who believed every feature of an organism was honed by what Darwin called “nature’s continuous scrutiny”, this claim, and the style in which it was delivered, was heretical.
The intellectual’s development from radical young Turk to mature senior academic is traditionally that from iconoclasm to conventional wisdom. Not so Steve Gould. The Structure Of Evolutionary Theory is a robust and formidable defence of his key contributions to Darwinian revisionism. Evolution is not a la carte, but structurally constrained; not all phenotypic features are adaptive, but may instead be spandrels or exaptations – or even contingent accidents, like the asteroid collision believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, thus making space for mammals and ultimately humans.
Wind the tape of history back, Gould insists, allow it to free-run forward again, and it is, in the highest degree, unlikely that the same species will evolve. Chance is crucial, and there is nothing inherently progressive about evolution – no drive to perfection, complexity or intelligent life.
Above all, he argues, natural selection works at many levels. Because genetics has come to dominate much of the life sciences, for many biologists organisms have become almost irrelevant, save as instruments serving the purposes of their genes – splendidly encapsulated in Richard Dawkins’ famous description of humans as “lumbering robots” – the gene’s way of making copies of itself. Evolution itself has come to be defined as a change in gene frequency in a population.
By contrast, Gould argues for a hierarchical view; that evolution works on genes, genomes, cell lineages and, especially, on species. Ignoring speciation, he says, is like playing Hamlet without the prince. This is the central theoretical issue underlying all the polemics that characterise what have come to be known as the “Darwin wars”, pitting Gould against Dawkins as his principal adversary, although in reality – and to the chagrin of creationists – both are children of Darwin, and agree on far more than they disagree.
Cutting-edge researchers are often ignorant of their own science’s history. Perhaps it was because he was a palaeontologist that Gould returned so often in his writing to the history of his own subject. His was not the sort of whiggish, anecdotal approach by which senior scientists tend to ossify the progression from past obscurity to present clarity, but a deeper attempt to understand the twists and turns of theory and evidence, which ensure that even our present-day knowledge is provisional, and like life itself, historically constrained.
Born in Queens, New York, and educated through the city’s superb public school system, Gould trained as a geologist at Antioch College, Ohio, took a doctorate in palaeontology at Columbia University, New York, in 1967, and spent a brief period at Leeds University before moving to Harvard.
In 1982, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, rumoured to have been precipitated by the asbestos lining of the specimen cabinets in the MCZ basement. The disease has a median survival time of eight months; as Gould later wrote, he was committed to being one of those who survived long enough to help show that statistic medians are not means, after all. The 20 years before cancer finally caught up with him were packed with more than most public intellectuals and scientists can hope to achieve in a lifetime, and a small galaxy of prizes.
He was married twice, and is survived by his former wife Deborah, their sons Jesse and Ethan, his second wife Rhonda, and his stepchildren, Jade and London.
Steve Jones writes: The world of snail genetics has lost its leading light. Not, perhaps, how most obituarists will celebrate him, but true nevertheless. Gould was, like Darwin, a working scientist; an accumulator of facts, in his case about the snails, live or fossilised, of the Bahamas. However, and again like Darwin, he became most celebrated not for his own research, but for his interpretation of the facts gathered by others.
Evolutionists have the bitter feeling that theirs is the only science left in which it is possible to become famous just for having an opinion. Their field (or at least the public’s image of it) is filled with people with strongly-held views who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives, whether in a rainforest or a laboratory. Gould was not like that. He may not have spent five years on the Beagle, but he passed many uncomfortable summers kicking through bushes or scraping away at lumps of rock.
Whatever its merits, his famous theory of punctuated equilibrium – evolution by jerks, as its critics called it; Gould responded with taunts about evolution by creeps – gave the then slothful post-Darwinian giant a kick, just when and where it needed it. Biology was forced to remind itself that many evolutionary questions had been forgotten, and entered an era of intense debate.
In the view of most (but not all) in the field, the answer was refreshingly conventional: Darwin was, in the end, right, and the problems raised by Gould could be solved without toppling the great Victorian from his ped- estal. Gould, needless to say, did not agree.
Scientifically, he was – in the eyes of us “creeps” at least – a failure, but a heroic one, in the sense that Columbus failed to find India. In science, failures can be heroes, too – think of Newton after relativity; and to the public, Gould was the hero. He fought the creationists, joked about baseball, and wrote some of the finest of all science essays. Although sometimes visited by the curse of orotundity, he kept it up to the end.
The last time I met him, we talked snails, and now that the chance to do so again has gone, it is time to summarise his life. To most people, he was punctuationist, populariser or polemicist; to biologists, he earned that most rare and coveted title, that of his great predecessor, Darwin: naturalist.
· Stephen Jay Gould, palaeontologist, born September 10 1941; died May 20 2002