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Talk to the fossils. Let’ see what they say back

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Talk to the Fossils 3.jpg O’Leary for News’s new series here at Evolution News & Views:

A while back, I started a series here called “Science Fictions” that I began by asking a simple question: Why is the space alien understood as science but Bigfoot as mythology? The reason I asked is that, still lacking specimens of either entity, decade after decade, answers are likely to be revealing.

Those answers help us see how “science” is understood, allowing us to interpret claims about the origin of the universe, life, human life, and the human mind.

In general, naturalism (the idea that inanimate nature somehow created minds) seems to be the guiding principle of enterprises classed as science today, even though the evidence actually goes in the opposite direction.

In a new series, “Talk to the Fossils,” I would like now to look at ways evolution might happen (or not).

Contrary to what we sometimes hear, few people doubt that evolution occurs in principle. The scientifically serious questions revolve around mechanisms, that is, around the question of — as biochemist Michael Behe puts it in Darwin’s Black Box — how exactly does it occur?

The point of Behe’s critique is often missed: Anyone can come up with a “how” explanation — that is, “how, according to my own grand theory.”

Science is not about merely how. It is about how, exactly. [Usually, that is the point at which the wheels fall off.] More.

Talk to the Fossils 3.jpg

  Evolution: The Fossils Speak, but Hardly with One Voice:

2. Are there patterns in evolution? Yes, probably, at least two: Larger size and growing complexity (partly a function of multicellular body plans). Over the last 542 million years, marine animals’ mean size has increased by 150 times. As it happens, the largest animal that has ever lived, so far as we know, is today’sblue whale.

That said, patterns we assume to exist may not hold up. A classic evolutionary doctrine, “Dollo’s law,” claims that traits once lost can never be regained. But bone worms, for one example, seem to break this law, in that the males are roughly the same size as the females, instead of being the usual thousands of times smaller for their type of worm. Frogs, snapdragons, and snakes, among other life forms, apparently also break the law with impunity. From The Smithsonian, we learn that evolution is indeed reversible:

Some mites have returned to their free-roaming ways after countless millennia living on animal hosts. And a tree frog from South America lost its lower teeth only to re-evolve them after 200 million years.

We don’t actually know how rare reversal is. And we can’t fill in large chunks of time with patterns when there are no verified patterns. Some say Dollo’s law is due for retirement. But others aver, using computer models, that evolution is both irreversible and unpredictable. If evolution is indeed unpredictable, there is no pattern.

Some, like science writer Philip Ball, claim nonetheless that there is a “strange inevitability of evolution.” At Nautilus, he reports:

“Darwin’s theory surely is the most important intellectual achievement of his time, perhaps of all time,” says evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner of the University of Zurich. “But the biggest mystery about evolution eluded his theory. And he couldn’t even get close to solving it.

But wait! If the biggest mystery in evolution eluded Darwin’s theory, why his theory “the most important intellectual achievement of his time, perhaps of all time”? How are we supposed to get anywhere if we are expected to venerate such a non-explanatory grand theory?

See also: Origin of the universe, life, human life, and the human mind.

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