Friday, October 2, 2009

The Science of Evolution - Still Trumped by Emotional Appeals

One thing about the scientific enterprise that seems to bother many “ordinary” people is the lack of definite conclusions that science draws. We scientists go running around, so it seems, proclaiming that “This discovery answers That question . . . “ Only to have the NEXT discovery answer THAT question, or blow That Question right out of the water. This one of the primary tools of Creationists – deny evolution as the explanation of life because the scientific take on evolution keeps . . . well . . . evolving. The Bible, on the other hand, has a consistent description of how the world was made, so it must be right.

So, then, what is a non-scientific society to do with Ardi? This newly described “human” skeleton is being interpreted as a protohuman of some kind – and evidence that chimpanzee behavior and evolution is not actually a good stand-in for human evolution (Ardi's describers conclude that modern chimpanzees may have co-evolved with Ardi, but not from Ardi). Rather, it seems that Ardi may have been the first ape ancestor to go try bipedalism for reasons of transferring food from males to females to create a monogamous or mostly monogamous relationship. In other words, Ardi’s male counterparts started walking upright to make sure they could get, and keep, the girl.

This wouldn’t be a huge thing – anthropologists have been speculating for years as to what drove the apes out of the trees and into upright positions. The change comes, however, in that Ardi points to this trait appearing a full 1 Million years before Lucy, who was described previously as the hominid ancestor who shows this trait. Lucy and Ardi, then, may well be close cousins in the human evolutionary tree – but it remains to be seen how their relationship is worked out and how that changes the description of the evolution of humans.

For Creationists, however, Ardi represents yet another turn in the evolutionary story – and thus another reason evolution is wrong. Because Ardi predates Lucy, they will no doubt argue, we have to reject everything that we supposedly learned about humans from Lucy. This means, to Creationists, that science isn’t delivering ANSWERS about how humans came to be but questions and contradictions (never mind that good scientists never claim to have definitive answers). Thus, the Creationist crowd will crow, we must reject science.

How will science respond? Will we rise to the occasion by pointing out how such deterministic thinking is, inherently flawed? Wills scientists describe the joy of discovering an expanded narrative to our ancestral tree, thus blunting Creationists emotional appeals for certainty with our own emotional appeals to the wonder of discovery? Or will we retreat to our probabilities, our R2 values and our caveats? If we do the latter, we will lose the debate just as surely as when we debate climate deniers with facts and figures, instead of blunting their underlying emotional appeals. And I think if we lose this debate, we do Ardi little justice.


Mike at The Big Stick said...

I've always thought that the only real flaw in the scientific case for evolution is that scientists speak with a bit too much certainty. There's probably more that we don't know than what we do about human evolution. I think scientists just need to be more honest about the gray areas.

As for trying to 'convince' anyone who is a Creationist...that's energy wasted in my humble opinion.

Mike Licht said...

Ardi's robust thumb musculature and flexible midcarpal (wrist) joint are perfect for text-messaging.


Philip H. said...

Now there's an evolutionary link if ever there was one!

Thanks for adding a bit of humor to my Friday!