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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The "Evolution" of Evolution

So...a few nights ago I caught the much-advertised evolutionary special called Discovering Ardi on the Discovery Channel. I was fascinated. For those who missed all the hype, including ads in a multiplicity of magazines and internet banners on every website across the WWW, this show documented the 15-year scientific pursuit surrounding the discovery of the oldest known hominid (cave man) fossil discovered in the sands of Ethiopia in 1993. Since that time paleontologists and paleo-artists and paleo-motion capture experts (what? you never heard of that field before?) have been piecing together dozens and dozens of tiny fragments, cat-scanning the fossilized bones, and recreating a three-dimensional vision of what this "creature" may have looked like, how it behaved, what its environment was like, etc., etc.

The catchphrase of the documentary was "Darwin could only dream of finding this." And indeed, like many shows on educational television, it was necessary to cull through the intellectual "rabbit droppings" in order to appreciate the truly fascinating tale of the painstaking efforts of modern science to collect and then reconstruct a four-and-a-half-million-year-old fossil.

Darwinian evolution wasn't the only sales job that the documentary filmmakers tried to push on the viewing public. There was also the obligatory speech at the end about global warming and the destruction of the planet by modern "hominids", and a finger-shaking reminder that unless we started properly worshipping Mother Nature and treating her with significantly more respect, all of these painstaking efforts to rebuild fossils would become a monumental waste of time (because we'd all be dead and could no longer appreciate it anyway).

But that's okay. Cliches about deforestation and mass extinction are lobbed at the viewer with virtually every documentary that highlights science and planet earth. The challenge for the viewer--and I think I've become rather good at it (if I do say so myself)--is to learn to filter out the nonsense and voodoo and get down to the core of truly fascinating and mind-bending information that a show like this has to present. I think as consumers of information we must learn this skill. We are, after all, commanded to learn all that we can in this life. But when such information is consistently sandwiched inside false and corrupt ideology, it becomes essential to separate the wheat from the chaff so that we don't miss out on many educational gems.

In one of my Tennis Shoes novels, I recall that I trumpeted the idea that the purpose of life was not to discover all the answers, but to formulate all the questions. An LDS anthropologist I met recently called many of these "tunnel" questions, meaning that they were the questions we would ask the angel that we (presumably) will meet in the "tunnel of light" after we die (as he or she guides us back to our heavenly destination). Examples of such questions would be: "So how do the doggone dinosaurs fit into the picture?" or "Why do we have evidence of civilizations in the Mississippi Valley that pre-date the earliest civilizations in Mesoamerica that we've already pegged as Jaredites?"

I think I've refined my thoughts about gathering questions since those days when I first wrote Feathered Serpent, Part One . My suspician now is that after we die, and after all our memories of pre-earth life are returned to us, we'll find that we already know the answers to most of these so-called "tunnel" questions. We won't need an angel to explain them. But even so, this does not relieve us of the responsibility, as touted in the scriptures, to learn everything that we can here in mortality and thereby gain an indispensible advantage in the world to come. (For a more accurate rendering of the concept, I suggest re-reading Doctrine and Covenants 130:18-19.)

I am starting to suspect--and this is a new idea for me--that much of the so-called "advantage" to be gained by all this studying is simply learning how to learn. I'm not really sure how many actual answers or even questions our Heavenly Father expects us to accumulate in this life. The primary objective--through diligence and obedience--is to exercise our minds and thereby "open up the synapses" (so to speak) so that our brains can finally receive pure light and knowledge directly from the fountain of God.

I emphasized the word "obedience" because we don't often think about the fact that gaining knowledge and intelligence is integrally connected to obedience (again see D&C 130:18-19). And yet it is so obviously interconnected that it can be very dangerous to ignore it. How many times, for instance, are we baffled when seemingly intelligent, educated, and well-meaning people have blatantly wrong ideas? Just as a single dramatic example, how much light and knowledge does a human being need to have in order to understand that abortion is wrong? For many of us we simply cannot comprehend how a fellow member of the human species can draw a different conclusion. I'm sure many readers could think of dozens of other examples. But so often one cannot correct or change the mind of a person who espouses wrong ideas by using rational arguments or logic. Obedience--the kind of obedience that attracts the light of Christ--is often the only way to truly "liberate" a soul from seriously misguided ideas. Sin breeds wrong ideas. Living contrary to God's commandments opens our minds and souls up to the corrupting influence of the Adversary. Obedience (alongside continual repentance) is often the only cure.

For many of us the very word evolution evokes such a distasteful image that we immediately distrust and reject anyone who tries to perpetuate such notions. And yet a blanket rejection of the core concept may not be our wisest approach. The truth is that evolution is a catch-all term that refers to many complex theories with numerous tenets and branches. Latter-day Saints might be surprised to learn that they do actually believe in evolution. What they reject are specific theories that suggest that an ameoba becomes an elephant. Simplified, these kinds of evolutionary theories are known as "Darwinian Evolution."

I think Latter-day Saints are willing to concede that changes take place in various species of animals over multiple generations. We can observe this happening when a virus develops a mutation that makes it impregnable to current vaccines. Yup, that's evolution. But this kind of evolution is known as "genetic drift." Another name for Darwinian evolution is "natural selection." But even that would be an oversimplification, because, again, most reasonable people would concede that natural selection plays some kind of role in the variances of characteristics of certain species over time. We just reject the idea that a one-celled organism becomes a Tyrannosaurus Rex or that a salamander becomes a pelican. In short, we reject the idea that Homo Sapiens evolved from the chimpanzee. But it seems that in recent years evolutionary biologists have mostly rejected that idea as well!

Many Christians and/or Creationists would be surprised to learn that even within the scientific community there are bitter arguments and ongoing feuds between proponents of natural selection, random genetic drift, and a myriad of other variations of the evolutionary model. From Discovering Ardi I was surprised at how many basic Darwinian tenets scientists now have to alter or change because of what the "Ardi" fossil has taught us. For example, the long-held concept that bipedality (walking on two legs) developed when man's ancestors moved out onto the open plain is now seriously questioned because of the Ardipithecus ramidus fossil. Also, Darwin's landmark theory that men descended from chimps is being significantly altered. It now appears (according to "Ardi" scientists) that chimps and men both descended from the same common ancestor. We just haven't pinned down that ancestor yet. What??? This means basic evolutionary science is now rejecting an idea which has been in the textbooks since I was a child! Suddenly a layman begins to wonder just what the heck we do know!

Many strange conclusions are proposed in this documentary. These conclusions tend to reveal just how human and fallible scientists really are. The most bizarre conclusion for me was the idea that, in the process of natural selection, bipedality and smaller canines (teeth) became dominant human traits favored by females in their selection of a mate because it meant that the mate (men) were better able to carry food back to the cave. Where did that logic come from? Tell that to the couch-potato husband who watches television while his wife lugs in the grocery sacks! This documentary also proposes the silly rationale that hominid fossils are rare because hominids were not as stupid as other primitive creatures by allowing themselves to get stuck in the mud. Yeah, there's overwhelming evidence to suggest we're too smart for that, right? Just observe the average two-wheel drive owner who insists on taking his vehicle into the mountains or who feels intellectually certain that the mud puddle up ahead couldn't possibly be too deep!

This documentary popularizes the idea that "Ardi" was bipedal or that she (it?) walked upright on two feet. But after a few quick searches on the internet one finds many articles and statements from other scientists who adamantly oppose that conclusion. The pelvic bones of this fossil are simply too smashed to decide how many limbs it used to ambulate. "Huh?" you say. "You mean scientific geniuses often disagree???" I also learned that there are serious disagreements as to the bipedality of the former "queen of the hill" (as far as oldest hominid skeletons)--which was the Australopithecus fossil known as "Lucy" which is 1.2 million years younger than "Ardi." There are now studies which suggest that "Lucy", like other apes, was also a "knuckle-walker", which again leads one to wonder exactly how many conclusions drawn by paleontologists can be considered accurate or helpful at all!

Please correct me if I'm wrong--because I couldn't believe this when I heard it--but in the Discovering Ardi documentary I learned that the entire case for human evolution is based on about 300 total fossils. Could that really be true? Obviously there are hundreds of thousands of fossils catalogued from every continent on the globe. But are there really only 300 Neanderthals, Homo Erectuses, and Australopithecuses, etc., in the fossil record? This is incredible! It means the sheer breadth of conclusions that have been drawn from such a narrow sampling of material is utterly mind-boggling. No pollster on earth would feel secure with conclusions drawn from a sampling of 300 surveys. So we really do know very little about the history of this planet. But not to worry. As with so many other questions related to salvation and the eternities, we should all be humbly and patiently waiting for Heavenly Father to reveal more--in His own good time and when we are prepared to receive it.

Really, the only thing mankind seems to have learned from all the digging and scraping and reassembling in Ethiopia is that a now-extinct female primate once roamed eastern Africa at a time when the landscape was much more forested. That's it! That pretty much sumarizes the extent of our verifiable knowledge. But don't be discouraged. Let the scraping and digging and hypothesizing continue! Again, that's why we're here in mortality.

I only wish that more scraping and hypothesizing were being done by individuals whose scientific speculations were shaped by celestial principles of obedience.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger


  1. I totally agree. There are so many opinions out there about pretty much every thing under the sun that it's hard to determine what's truth and what's not. It comforts me that as I live the Gospel and apply it in my life, I'll be pretty much safe for making the wrong conclusions about things. If I do make a wrong conclusion, I'm willing to change and learn from my mistake. I'm grateful that I have the Holy Ghost to guide me. It's just hard determining what's my feelings and his promptings. It just takes practice I guess.

  2. Personally, I don't think that evolution and creation are necessarily mutually exclusive. We know that a day in Heaven is considerably more time than a day on Earth is. I also sat in a lecture once where the speaker was saying that in translating Genesis, the word used for "day" was not necessarily a 24-hour day, but an undefined period of time. So I don't think that it's outside the realm of possibility that evolution may have been part of the creation process. Having said that, I don't believe in the possibility of man evolving from apes or Neanderthals or anything of the sort. Mosiah 7:27 answers that question clearly enough for me.

    The answers in science are constantly changing. Things that were considered "fact" twenty years ago are completely refuted today. There are many, many things we don't have the answers to right now. We all have questions, that's normal. But I've found a lot of comfort in D&C 58:3, though I'm taking it out of context: "Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things..." We'll have the answers someday, and there are things we just can't grasp yet. So for now, all we really need to do is study what's available and pray for inspiration. We don't need to know absolutely everything right this second.

  3. I agree with Sarah. I don't need to know everything right this second. But by Tuesday would be nice. Or at least time for Purim.

  4. Thanks for making me think outside of my comfort zone. Too bad scientists lean on their own understanding and not on the Lord. They might find they would solve many more mysteries if they did.

  5. Chris: Evolution is a catch-all term that refers to many complex theories with numerous tenets and branches.

    So true. Micro-evolution, or variation, is observed; I don't see any reason to object to it. But macro-evolution, or undirected speciation, is completely theory, especially across phyla.

    Some people pull a bait-and-switch. They show evidence for variation and then say they've proven "evolution," so you have to accept undirected speciation. But that's like saying that if you can demonstrate that there are electrons and protons, you've proven "atomic physics," so you have to accept string theory.