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Motivated by the Spotlight on Intelligent Design: A Review of SUDDEN ORIGINS by Jeffrey Schwartz

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I have been away from Blogcritics for a few days, so I was hoping I would have something to contribute when I came back. When I saw that we are spotlighting the Intelligent Design sideshow in Kansas, I knew that I had a lot of old and new reviews to choose from.

I settled on this one, because I think the book deserves a lot more attention than it has gotten since it was published in 1999. Admittedly, it’s academic in flavor and sometimes slow going, but there’s plenty of meat, even if you read it selectively.

Following the review, I’ll include a few links to reviews of more popular books on evolution at my Science Shelf website, where the latest addition is a roundup of books for the World Year of Physics.

The link in the middle of the review takes you to the page on my Children’s Science web site where I give my personal assessment of intelligent design in an “Ask Dr. Fred” question from a ninth grader who, I think, was hoping for a different answer.

In Sudden Origins, University of Pittsburgh Anthropology Professor Jeffrey Schwartz has produced a book that will challenge — even overwhelm — its readers with a wealth of detail. Yet if they can stay the course, they will be rewarded with a thought-provoking new view of the history of life on Earth.

“Evolution is not a theory,” argues Schwartz. “It is a phenomenon. What evolutionists … strive to understand are the processes that make evolution tick. This is not an easy task, because evolutionary events occur over greater periods of time than any scientist, or generations of scientists, could observe.”

Without taking on so-called “creation science” directly, Schwartz demonstrates that evolutionary theory is itself evolving, as all good scientific theories do in the face of new knowledge. What creation scientists cite as the theory’s weaknesses, Schwartz presents as its strengths.

With a thorough detailing of the history of this century-and-a-half-long quest, even including notations in Darwin’s original notebooks, he traces the development of our current understanding. That understanding emerges not as Darwinian doctrine, but rather as the result of a rich scientific conversation among colleagues and adversaries, all of whom share a common goal if not a common point of view: understanding the origin and development of, and relationships among, the diverse creatures that have lived on our planet.

A recurring theme in that conversation is one that creation scientists often seize upon. If life evolves gradually, where are all the “missing links”? Although that term conjures images of “ape-men,” the challenge to the theory is much more serious than that. The fossil record is riddled with gaps.

Life forms evolve, it seems, in a kind of punctuated equilibrium. Successful species change slowly and gradually over millions of years, then new species originate suddenly, arising in dramatically different forms with, in many cases, no intermediate examples.

Scientists have proposed many explanations for the absence of transitional creatures, none of which have been totally plausible. They have tended to divide into two camps on that issue. One group has insisted that the intermediate examples will be found; the other has argued that geographic separation and environmental change drives rapid speciation.

Schwartz sides with the latter group and tackles two important unanswered questions in his “New Evolution” as to the underlying cause of novel characteristics that lead quickly to new species: (1) “How will novelty look when it does appear?” and (2) “How does more than one individual come to have a novel structure?”

The answer, he writes, lies in a class of genes called homeobox, whose importance was not fully appreciated until recently. These genes regulate the development of creatures from embryo through adult. Mutations in these genes propagate invisibly through the species as recessive and unexpressed, says Schwartz, until they are common enough that some individuals inherit them from both parents. That leads to fully developed novel features. Within a few generations, a new species emerges.

To Schwartz, this is the origin of species: “(T)he same kinds of structural building blocks are found among a wildly diverse array of organisms — from yeasts to humans — that have fashioned the resultant structures differently,” thanks mainly to the differences between their developmental sequence. As a result, “seemingly distantly related and very dissimilar groups we call invertebrates and vertebrates are, in their genes, much closer than scientists even ten years ago could have imagined.” One developmental sequence leads to animals with skeletons inside their musculature; another leads to the opposite arrangement.

“Given the potential of homeobox genes to be fully rather than partially expressed,” Schwartz concludes, “we can appreciate why ‘missing links’ are so elusive in the fossil record. They probably did not exist.”

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous children’s science books, including Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth.

If you enjoy reading books about evolution, the following books reviews also appear on The Science Shelf:

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About Fred Bortz

  • Fascinating stuff, thanks Fred.

  • As far as “intelligent idea” the main argument seems to be that some people just can’t get their head around the idea that evolution and chance CAN create wonderful things. Sorry, the lack of comprehending something doesn’t seem to me to be really a good argument. I think I comprehend evolution but I can’t really comprehend entangled photons or how that could possibly be true, but I choose to believe it anyway despite how far fetched it may seem, because there is SCIENCE to back it up. Science is all about testing and retesting the truth of theories.

    A lot of modern religion seems to be about denying and redenying the reality of the world. Homosexuals have been around for at least several thousand years (we can only know from the written record for sure, I would imagine much earlier than that since it exists in other animals). But SOME religious people (not all) deny the fact that humanity has survived the existence of homosexuality for all these centuries and if you point it out, they just re-deny it.

    As far as: “WHY is it unacceptable to allow the debate? Why is it unacceptable to teach the controversy? Why is it unacceptable to ask the question; are there better theories to explain the existence of life on this planet?”

    I would rephrase this: “WHY is it unacceptable to allow the debate? Why is it unacceptable to teach the controversy? Why is it unacceptable to ask the question; are there better theories to explain the existence of trunks on elephants?” This would be my question about why the story of how the elephant got his trunk isn’t being taught as an alternate theory in biology class…

  • Big Time Patriot asks the Intelligent Design advocates’ questions, then gives his answer.

    My reply is different than his.

    The ID folks ask:
    “WHY is it unacceptable to allow the debate? Why is it unacceptable to teach the controversy? Why is it unacceptable to ask the question; are there better theories to explain the existence of life on this planet?”

    These seem like reasonable questions at first glance, but the language is loaded and
    based on the assumption that ID is science.

    Here’s my reply. Good science always leaves the door open to alternate interpretations of the evidence. Sometimes that leads to controversy, such as whether the Mars Meteorite ALH84001 contains fossils of ancient microbes (http://www.fredbortz.com/MFOEupdate.htm).

    More often that leads to lively discussion, as is the case with most scientific work on evolution today.

    The controversy over evolution is religious, not scientific, because the ID advocates build their theories on an inherently supernatural assumption that can neither be challenged nor verified, a unseen behind-the-scenes creator.

    Science is doing fine in crafting natural explanations for evolution that don’t need a supernatural Capital C Creator. Perhaps the Creator exists but is beyond our abilities to detect. That’s a perfectly fine basis for religious discussion, but it does not belong in a science classroom.

    So if we want to have a controversy, let’s have it in the religious arena, and leave scientific pretenses out of it.

    (Go to http://www.fredbortz.com/askcreate.htm to see what I say to kids on this topic.)