In The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution, Charles S. Cockell, University of Edinburgh astrobiology professor, uses physics to explain the pervasiveness of convergent evolution and to challenge open-ended expectations of what extraterrestrial life might look like. The book is oriented around a perceived dichotomy between simple or predictable physics and complex or unpredictable biology, with Cockell arguing that the universal laws of physics place remarkable constraints on the options for life – “physics trumps individuality.” “Evolutionary convergence” is simply “similarity caused by the laws of physics.” Life is “endless in detail, restricted in form.”
Cockell tours life at several fascinating scales, delving into the physics of a ladybug to remark on the ubiquitous physical principles it must cope with to open its wings or hang onto walls or diffuse oxygen into its body. We see, among other examples, how a mole’s narrowing snout is urged on by P=F/A.
The basic concept of a cell seems to be a requirement for life, to keep one’s innards from diffusing into its environment. Cockell speculates on the cell’s origin by describing molecules with hydrophilic heads and hydrophobic tails that spontaneously form spherical membranes in water before noting that cell size is constrained by the laws of physics, most notably the surface area to volume ratio, which affects the transfer of resources into the cell.
On the many limitations of life: “Between absolute zero and the temperature of a star, say, the Sun, life occupies only 0.007 percent of this temperature range” due to the laws of physics on the “chemical compounds we call life.” Too hot – molecules can’t hold together; too cold – they can’t move at all. But temperature is not the only narrow property. Honey’s resistance to contamination “shows us that some places that contain liquid water are uninhabitable” (the water activity is too low for chemical reactions; it resists osmosis). Or how about the level of salt in the water? Too much is just too much. “We need not visit alien worlds to find where life has reached its physical limits, where no amount of chance or evolution will push it beyond the barrier of salt,” where “over three and a half billion years” of evolutionary experiments have failed.
In conclusion, “the biosphere is like a zoo, surrounded by a wall,” with extraordinary diversity within, but limited by “the insuperable laws of physics.” “The physical space that life occupies at the planetary scale, and the physical and chemical conditions it can adapt to, within the vast range of conditions found across the known universe, are petite.”
Expounding on themes in Simon Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution, Cockell remarks on the remarkable efficiency of the genetic code mapping as well as other peaks. When considering the 20 amino acids used for most of life, out of a much larger possible set, those 20 have an “uncanny” maximum of “even, wide distribution” of possible properties (size, charge, hydrophilic/phobic, etc), like a good set of wrenches, making an extremely flexible tool kit for life. The routes involved in glycolysis and gluconeogenesis (the breaking and making of glucose) have been found to “produce the highest flux of compounds” of thousands of tested alternatives. Cockell attributes these pinnacles to the relentless selective constraints of the laws of physics.
It’s clear that Cockell thinks extraterrestrial likely looks a lot like us, from the choices of lower-scale molecules to the higher-scale body plan dealings with gravity and air pressure. But he doesn’t dogmatically insist on it, and he sympathetically considers alternate suggestions, only to repeatedly conclude that the things we see on Earth are likely the best – and maybe even the only – solutions the periodic table has to offer.
Water is not just an incredible solvent; it also facilitates molecular reactions in the ways it binds to molecules inside cells. Proposed alternatives (like liquid methane) just aren’t as versatile, and come with drawbacks from their temperature range. Carbon is superior to silicon due to its electron number, which makes it just the right size for binding to molecules (the binding electrons are not too close to the nucleus to resist reactions, nor too far to make compounds too unstable). Cockell concedes that silicon has some known potential – and is careful to admit that we don’t understand it as well as carbon – but it mostly seems to just be good for building boring rocks.
Other larger elements have their interesting niches, but hydrogen, oxygen, carbon – indeed all the elements in the CHNOPS acronym – are likely to be dominant wherever life may exist, in Cockell’s view. Not only do they have the most favorable range of stability due to their size, but they also seem to form the most abundant molecules in the universe. The spectroscopic study of diffuse interstellar clouds and giant molecular clouds have found them to contain loads of carbon-based molecules. So have the meteors and comets we’ve studied closer to home. If we Copernically assume that other solar systems have the same basic elements that ours does (though he notes that “our solar system’s architecture” of rocky inner and gassy outer planets is surprisingly “not typical”), then “amino acids, sugars, nucleobases, and fatty acids are raining down on planets” throughout our galaxy and the universe. What else could life use?
Even different levels of gravity would not necessarily have drastically different effects on animals on other planets. While land animals would require massively thicker legs in higher gravity, there would be a negligible influence on animals the size of insects, where molecular forces dominate (as in the ladybug sticking to the wall), and it would apparently be completely cancelled out regarding water buoyancy. Cockell is careful to hedge his arguments with the gaps in our knowledge and imagination, but he offers strong reason to be skeptical of the free-wheeling optimists who claim that life in the universe might be so different from our own – sentient gas clouds and the like – that we might not even recognize it. The period table is the same across the universe, and so are the physical constraints that derive from it. (So, no, the Fermi paradox cannot be dismissed so cavalierly.)
In the end, Cockell sees no demarcation between physics and biology. When considering a rapturous bird flight, “the sight is mesmerizing, a show of such unpredictability and beauty that anyone would be forgiven for thinking this was some gift of life on Earth, something that stands above physics, something rooted in a higher order of organization.” Cockell sees biology nested comfortably within physics (though I think the laws of physics, and the order that emerges from them, can be seen as gifts in and of themselves…)
Mark Whorton is a NASA engineer who is also an old-earth creationist (OEC). Peril in Paradise is a cordial attempt to persuade young-earth creationists (YEC) that an inerrant, divinely inspired Scripture is fully compatible with an old earth. Like YEC’s, Whorton rejects evolution, thought he doesn’t focus much on that, nor on the science of the age of the Earth. He primarily focuses on two theological paradigms of creation that technically don’t have anything to do with the age of the Earth, contrasting the “Perfect Paradise Paradigm” (which doesn’t allow for an old earth) with his “Perfect Purpose Paradigm” (which does).
Questioning Young Earth Paradigms of Eden
Was the garden perfect? Whorton notes that the “idyllic view of Eden is derived more from the biblical description of the end times than the beginning,” even though “the Master’s plan culminates with a better future than the past has been.”
There’s a “common notion that the entire earth was like the garden of Eden,” yet “the Scriptures indicate that the garden was unique location not necessarily like the rest of the Earth.” Furthermore, even in this specially protected place, “the necessity of cultivating the garden implies that the garden was in need of maintenance.” Whorton points to other examples of the Hebrew meod tob (“very good”), arguing that “neither Rebekah nor the Promised Land was perfect in every way, but both were exactly right for the purpose” God had given them.
Whorton argues that the curse of Genesis 3 is “very specific and focused in scope,” unlike the “blank check” of the Perfect Purpose Paradigm, which “envisions a radically different world that fails the test of consistency and credibility on both theological and practical grounds.” Whorton describes several of these radical differences and argues that YEC explanations fall short, including the need for “an unimaginably rapid” “theistic hyper-evolution,” in which “one can only wonder how the excessively rich gene pool generated entirely new plant and animal species immediately after the flood, but shortly thereafter the species became fixed, vulnerable to change, and susceptible to extinction.”
Many species alive today are especially well suited to present-day ecologies but would have been unfit for the Perfect Paradise… Many who use Bomby [the bombardier beetle] to argue for design in creation fail to recognize the inherent contradiction with their creation paradigm. This attribute of design is meaningful only in the context of a need for defense.
Additionally, “the Creator takes credit” in Job and the Psalms “for creating the very things that are not permitted by that paradigm,” including stormy weather and predatory animals. Whorton interprets the “decree that will not pass away” (Ps. 148) as a “biblical statement that the laws of nature have never changed.” He also critiques the idea that the curse corrupts scientific observation with passages to argue that “the revelation in nature is as perfect as the Law of the Lord (else how could men be “without excuse”?)
Responding to claims that, by allowing millions of years of death and suffering, God’s character is incompatible with an old earth:
Job’s friends erred when they relentlessly tried to persuade him about what God would or would not do… Young earth creationists – indeed all Christians – should heed this warning when they speak definitively about how God must conduct himself.
Many young-earth creationists mistakenly think that old-earth creationists (or theistic evolutionists) reject their interpretation of Genesis due to a fundamental rejection of miracles. Whorton explains: “Both creation camps agree that God has the power to do as He chooses. What separates the two views is not what God is able to do but what God actually did.”
The Cosmic Scope of God’s Purposes
Interestingly, the book has more to do with theodicy than the Garden of Eden. As Whorton unlinks suffering from Adam’s fall, he defends not simply pre-Fall animal suffering, but suffering in general, especially present human suffering, with an emphasis on the sovereignty of God and his purposes to glorify himself through creation rather than an “egocentric” focus on humanity:
God had a higher purpose than merely to fellowship with man in a pristine and blissful garden paradise. Rather than the egocentric perspective that God’s purpose was our enjoyment, the more cosmic scope of this paradigm properly focuses on the ultimate end of creation which is the glory of God. This eternal perspective accounts for the fuller meaning of the cross where Christ dealt not only with the sin of man but also with the rebellion of Satan. In the economy of the Creator’s eternal plan, what began before time will end with the consummation of His kingdom and the demonstration of His glory to all creation for all eternity.
While “the young earth creationist paradigm tends to neglect the significance of Satan’s fall,” Whorton builds a case through Colossians, Revelation, John, and Ephesians that Christ’s atonement had a “cosmic scope” in a plan that “extends beyond the rebellion of His creation to the ultimate realization of His eternal purpose through His creation.”
How Suffering Fits Into God’s Purposes
Whorton describes the Israelite slavery in Egypt as an example of God’s perfect purposes. Unlike “later periods of captivity” which “were always a judgment for their lack of faithfulness,” “the children of Israel were in Egypt solely because of God’s plan.” Through the Exodus, “He demonstrated previously unrevealed aspects of His person,” and through the plagues “not only was God delivering His people and showing His power, He was also executing judgment on the spiritual rulers behind this evil, earthly kingdom.” In conclusion:
Like Pharaoh, Satan was empowered after his rebellion for the very purpose of demonstrating God’s glory… Like Pharaoh, Satan’s judgment was deferred, and instead God raised him up… that His name would be proclaimed throughout the heavens and the earth.
Whorton says the Bible “emphasizes the outworking of God’s eternal plan rather than the temporal good of the individual,” agreeing with Aquinas that “this world is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best way to the best possible world.” 1 Peter 4 shows how “God permits suffering” for his “glory” that we “will also share.” Whorton claims that “the Perfect Paradise Paradigm views suffering in light of the past,” while “the Perfect Purpose Paradigm sees suffering in light of the future.”
The cross is the ultimate rebuttal against the claim that a loving God would prevent all suffering and evil. The same God who chose not to prevent suffering and evil did a greater thing – He entered creation and overcame evil through His own suffering.
Furthermore, “God’s promise to abide with us during suffering is an indication that we are partners in His unchanging, eternal plan.”
Whorton believes the “two books” of nature and Scripture can be reconciled. “With one consistent story, the heavens tell of His glory (Psalm 19:1-2) and the Scriptures tell of His Son (John 5:39).”
Does evolution diminish humanity from the pinnacle of creation to a place of purposeless worthlessness? This paradigm is shared by many evolutionary scientists as well as their creationist opponents, but in The Human Instinct: How we evolved to have reason, consciousness, and free will, Kenneth R. Miller argues against both, contending for a positive, inspiring view of evolution and humanity’s place in the universe.
Miller leaves no doubt that he accepts evolution, and especially human evolution, as settled science in a heavily materialistic view of the universe. He discusses the infamous Chromosome 2 fusion, the growing collection of hominid fossils of intermediate cranial capacities (and the inability of creationists to agree on which ones are “human” and which ones are “ape”), and the remarkable relation of NANOG pseudogenes serving as an apparent checkpoint in human-chimpanzee branching.
At the same time, Miller makes it clear that he recognizes creationist fears of the theological, philosophical, and moral implications of an evolutionary past for humanity. “The story of human evolution, according to those who spin this narrative, is one of pointless accident, dark struggle, and ultimate meaningless.” In contrast, Miller hopes to resurrect Darwin’s sense of “grandeur,” believing that in “the beauty and subtlety of evolution” comes “a new and exhilarating way to see our place among other living things.”
Covering a variety of topics like human psychology, consciousness, and free will, Miller provides succinct backgrounds of existing paradigms, noting the consensuses and controversies around them, quoting profusely from everyone from C. S. Lewis to Richard Dawkins and offering his own opinions and humble attempts at further contribution. He provides needed caution against some of the alleged historical explanations for human behavior pouring from the field of evolutionary psychology without proper evidence. He offers reasons to doubt the neuroscience claims that our conscious decisions are made ahead of us by brain activity before we realize it. In response to those who argue that all of our features are shared in lesser degrees by other animals, and that the human species is only unique in the way that every species is technically unique, Miller notes: “De Waal’s book is a marvelous display of pure brilliance on the part of our animal cousins. But it’s worth noting that the book was written by Dr. de Waal, not by any of the high-achieving animals he describes.”
Like Jonathan Losos in Improbable Destinies, Miller describes the contingency debate between Stephen Jay Gould’s randomness and Simon Conway Morris’s inevitability, arguing that, like other consistently repeated patterns, intelligence itself may be a “niche” that the “deep structure” of the universe is destined to exploit. While a replay of history might not result in our exact species, “not everything is possible in terms of physics, genetics, biochemistry, and physiology.” Pointing to octopuses which “could be on the verge” of self-awareness, “there is at least an element of predictability” in the limited pathways that random evolution can explore, suggesting that “great intelligence” may be “inherent” in evolution.
Miller doesn’t provide a final explanation for human consciousness, though he remains extremely optimistic that future brain science will give us a full understanding, possibly even to the point of powering through Chalmer’s “hard problem” by figuring out how to generate (for example) subjective sensations of color in blind individuals. Comparing the details of present brain structures, he hypothesizes that our ancestor’s growing brains disrupted old neuron connections and caused new ones that played some part in our emergent self-awareness. Against the self-defeating logic that a brain that evolved for survival instead of truth cannot even trust its own attempts to discover truth, including the very truth that it evolved for survival: “Yes, the human brain is a faulty instrument.” But “the human brain is fully capable of consciously recognizing its faults and correcting for them.”
Resistant to the idea of a non-material soul, he says “we do not need to postulate a ghost in the machine,” yet he admits that “genuine thought remains an elusive property” of life. He points out that life and non-life use the same carbon atoms which themselves are not “alive” to analogize that consciousness may work similarly on another level.
While thinking doesn’t appear to violate the laws of physics, Miller nevertheless rejects a fully deterministic view of free will, though he also points out shortcomings in opposing paradigms – like a handwavy removal of the problem to quantum mechanics, somehow – and doesn’t offer much in their place. Recognizing the pervasiveness of the illusion, he hopes that free will can somehow emerge as a phenomenon on a higher level of complexity. He weakly concludes that at least we seem to have a higher degree of freedom than other creatures, with the unique ability to imagine the consequences of different actions and to use that imagination to choose between them.
All of this leads to a claim, or at least a hope, that we can still somehow view ourselves at “center stage,” creating our own meaning, preferably including the idea that our connection to the rest of life gives us a unique responsibility to steward and protect it. In conclusion:
Our biological heritage is merely the beginning our what we can be, not the end of it… Evolution may explain the human need for art, music, religion, and even science, but it cannot explain those disciplines away. Each exists, in its highest form, as an expression of the best humanity can offer in making sense of this remarkable world… Far from diminishing us, knowing the details of Adam’s journey ennobles each of us as a carrier of something truly precious – the genetic, biological, and cultural heritage of life itself. Evolution describes not the death of Adam, but his triumph.
Jonathan Losos’s intriguing book Improbable Destinies seemed to support my sneaking suspicion that a scientifically accurate and up-to-date understanding of evolution is (at least) far more compatible with or (at most) far more suggestive of some sense of theological design and purpose than is so commonly assumed by its popular presentation and atheistic ambassadors. Losos recommended Life’s Solution for digging deeper into the wonderful world of evolutionary convergence, which played no small part in my sneaking suspicion. Thus it seemed a natural next step to read this book by Simon Conway Morris, who I vaguely understood to be one of the top figures in modern evolutionary science. Imagine my astonishment to discover that Mr. Morris is not merely supportive of my general hypothesis about the theological implications of “real” evolution, he is a Lewis-and-Chesterton-quoting Christian enthusiastically embracing those ideas, promoting a more confident argument in that direction than I ever dared to expect.
To be sure, Morris only winks and nudges in that direction, but it is clear that he is trying to open wide a door that he feels has been unfairly shut. Morris’s overall thesis is that “the emergence of sentience is imprinted in the evolutionary process” (p.303) – that the remarkable recurring patterns of biology make the evolution of intelligent creatures inevitable, and thus suggest a teleology just as strongly as the slightly more mathematical laws that govern physics and cosmology. The “awe and wonder” that we might feel at the “inevitability” of this process “might at last allow a conversation with religious sensibilities rather than the more characteristic response of either howling abuse or lofty condescension” (p.5)
The book’s scope is much wider than convergent evolution, however. In one early chapter, Morris marvels at the “eerie perfection” of the genetic code, which, in terms of how efficiently the coding alphabet corrects for errors, out of all possible combinations of the amino acids, is literally “one in a million” – the second most efficient out of 270 million possibilities. Somehow, life had “two hundred million years (and possibly much less) to navigate to the best of all possible codes.” There’s a “potentially gigantic hyperspace of alternative possibilities, yet the evidence suggests that rapidly with extraordinary effectiveness a very good, perhaps even the best, code is arrived at.” (p.15-17)
Morris also pokes fun at the irrational exuberance of abiogenesis researchers, who create the impression that “we are on the verge of seeing how the spark of creation transmuted the inanimate to the animate,” but “nothing could be further from the truth (p.43). It’s refreshing to hear someone of Morris’s caliber validate the common creationist dismissals of the old Urey-Miller experiments, among other attempts. Morris chides, “Many of the experiments designed to explain one or other step in the origin of life… involve an experimental rig in which the hand of the researcher becomes for all intents and purposes the hand of God.” (p.41) And he emphasizes how unexpected this should be: “The question of how the inanimate became animate has proved stubbornly recalcitrant. It should be rather simple, especially if you worship at the crowded shrine of self-organization.” (Preface) Unlike the creationists, Morris doesn’t insist on a divinely sparked alternative; he’s more subtly arguing that even any natural solution that does manage to be found will apparently have required so much precision and “fine-tuning” that for all intents and purposes it could be considered just as anthropologically principled as the properties of the universe itself.
Speaking of universal properties, Morris makes good explorations there as well. He channels and elaborates on Rare Earth arguments about our planet‘s impressively challenging ability to support life for billions of consecutive years – and how the problem of life’s first spark takes that to even higher levels. Apparently the sun’s early radiation should have driven the compounds necessary for an atmosphere and an ocean out beyond Jupiter. “So what are we doing here?” Morris twinkles before describing theories about the early Earth moving inward or receiving the bountiful gift of lots and lots of comets. (p.42) Morris also brings in the work of Guillermo Gonzalez (featured in The Privileged Planet and The Case For a Creator) on galactic habitability zones.
The convergent meat of the book is, of course, fascinating, illustrating Conway’s argument that “the evolutionary routes are many, but the destinations are limited.” (p.145) Some quick highlights:
skeleton space – a suggestion that nearly all possible combinations of body plan characteristics have been tried over the course of Earth’s history, most of them multiple times (p.118)
halteres – balancing gyroscope mechanisms on flies and strepsipterans (p.149)
Red-green color vision – “the changes in the structure of the rhodopsin molecule that make possible the absorption of particular wavelengths of light… The sites of substitution are highly specific.. red-green vision has evolved independently… the convergence in red vision between a fish and mammals where two, and possibly three, sites show identical substitutions… evidence continues to accumulate that the ‘five-site rule’ is very widespread (p.168-169)
the use of oil droplets as color filters in fish and birds (p.170)
electric signals – particularly mechanisms to avoid ‘jamming’ by multiple users – “fish changes its frequency… in a few microseconds” – “the algorithm used by the gymnotids and mormyrids to shift the signal has evolved independently but is identical.” Also, “computationally similar neural algorithms occur in the owl,” even though they are “acoustic” rather than “electric” (p.186)
ant-mimicking beetles – their solution to maintaining their mimicry in spite of their “changes in size and shape” is to “resemble successively in a series of moults, two or more species of ant” (p.213)
viviparity “originated over 130 times” (p.221)
singing – “strikingly similar… anatomical and functional similarities in the organization of neural pathways for vocal production and processing” in human and bird song
Conway tries to cover all the senses, all the different aspects of increasing intelligence, arguing that they have all evolved multiple times across the animal kingdom. He’s humble about its limitations: “identification of convergence presupposes a reliable phylogeny,” with a “constant risk of circularity in the argument. Is a particular character the same because it evolved from a common ancestor or is it convergent?” I’ve often thought of that criticism from a creationist perspective, but Conway argues that the details of convergence “provide no comfort for the creation scientists.” Why? Because “very seldom is the convergence so exact” as to suggest direct relationships; in the “nuances of difference and the paths followed,” “their various ways they provide compelling examples of the reality of organic evolution.” (p.299-300)
While at first glance all this may seem to weaken theological ideas about a purposeful Creator, by weakening humanity’s apparent uniqueness, Conway believes it suggests just the opposite, if “the emergence of sentience is imprinted in the evolutionary process” (p.303)
He says Fred Hoyle’s remark “that the universe was a set-up job rings strangely true.” (preface) “Biologists also have, in the true Darwinian spirit, immense admiration for the jury-rigging of biological design, whereby co-option and modification lead to the functioning whole. and, if they are honest, they may feel a sense of unease about the fluidity and grace of adaption. It has an almost uncanny sense of precision and balance, which humans achieve only rarely in technology and art.” (p.312)
(Conway does not do too much to tackle the specifically Christian theological challenges of evolution, though I wonder if his discussion about “forbidden knowledge” – the dangers of scientific knowledge removed from a moral system of values – might inform an interpretation of The Fall. His remark about Homo sapiens as the only survivor of multiple early hominids made me wonder if that winnowing might be compatible with the story of Noah…)
In closing remarks, Conway circles back to his remarks from the preface that “the heart of the problem… is to explain how it might be that we, a product of evolution, possess an overwhelming sense of purpose and moral identity yet arose by processes that were seemingly without meaning.” “Yes, it may all be due to a few misfiring neurons… but the fact remains that humans have an overwhelming sense of purpose… In the words of Arthur Peacocke, somehow biology has produced a being of infinite restlessness, and this certainly raises the question of whether human beings have properly conceived of what their true ‘environment’ is…” (p.314)
For most of my life, my understanding of the debate over evolution involved evolutionists (who argued that random, purposeless evolution definitely happened) against creationists (who argued that random, purposeless evolution definitely didn’t happen). All seemed to accept the premise that evolution, guided by random mutation and natural selection, was random and purposeless, with no determined or inevitable outcomes (and thus no sign of divine involvement, either), with the only dogmatic disagreements being about whether or not that evolution actually happened.
Recently, however, I keep bumping into what is apparently a growing paradigm of people that believe evolution happened, but that it was not so random and purposeless! From Michael Behe arguing that the crucial mutations for the evolution of life must have been “non-random,” (Edge of Evolution review) to Perry Marshall highlighting James Shapiro’s ideas (Evolution 2.0 review) that random mutation is not actually the main driver of evolution but rather a host of other more complicated cellular abilities and more active (almost self-driven) responses to environmental challenges. For me, this all cuts across the old debate, with fascinating implications for the anthropic principle and the old assumptions about the theological implications of evolutionary history.
Like St. George Jackson Mivart, I’ve always been fascinated by convergent evolution – the idea that various features not only managed to evolve at all, but apparently evolved multiple times (due to the feature not fitting neatly into the best-possible-fit of hierarchical nesting boxes of common ancestry). From a creationist perspective, it seemed to be a potential hole in the theory, and from an Evolution-2.0 perspective, it seemed to be evidence that evolutionary development was not completely random but had some sort of predictability or determinism in its outcomes. I heard about a new book that drew on the new flood of genomic data to show how convergent evolution is far more common than anybody ever thought, and how evolution can be far more rapid than anybody ever thought, and how all these data and experiments are calling into question assumptions about the unpredictability and inevitability of evolution. This sounded to me like more of that new paradigm-busting kind of evolution. And unlike the creationists or random outlier scientists who have always been claiming that the old view of evolution was a crisis about to collapse but that their maverick ideas are ignored and shut out of the ivory towers, this was coming from a Harvard professor citing the cutting-edge work of multi-published academic colleagues – about as central to ivory-tower-world as you can get. I knew I had to read Jonathan Losos’s Improbable Destinies and see what it had to say.
Whirlwind Tour of Convergence
The opening chapters lay out the competing scientific “debate between contingency and determinism.” Stephen Jay Gould represents the old “contingent” view that evolution is slow, random, and unpredictable. It has no foresight or planning or purpose. If you changed the slightest bit of history and “replayed the tape,” there might have been a completely different chain of outcomes and humans might not even be here. The universe guarantees nothing. Simon Conway Morris represents the new “deterministic” view that evolution is repeatable and predictable, consistently managing to derive similar outcomes from different starting points. And it can be fast too; Losos says “the reality of rapid evolution” is that “evolution can rip along at light speed” when conditions change, and that “life repeats itself… evolving similar adaptations in response to similar environmental circumstances.”
There has been an exponential rise in genome sequencing in recent years, and we’re finding all kinds of animals that share features that apparently evolved separately because their DNA is too different for them both to have inherited those features (“as new data from molecular biology floods in… time and time again we’ve been misled”). The book takes us on a whirlwind tour of examples of such astonishing convergence:
Australian marsupials have “convergent placental counterparts,” including a sugar glider instead of a flying squirrel, a marsupial mole instead of a mole, and a wombat instead of a groundhog, all with similar appearances and filling similar niches but evolving completely independently
Losos had assumed “porcupines were one happy evolutionary family” but “learned I had it all wrong. New and Old World porcupines do not share a common evolutionary heritage… The two lineages have independently evolved their quills from different, unquilled rodent species. They are the result of convergent evolution.”
“the traits that define the [beaked sea snake] species, not only its beak, coloration, and general appearance, but also its nasty disposition, have evolved convergently, so much so that distant relatives on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean were considered to be members of the same species” [until their genomes were sequenced]
“many types of lizards have independently evolved flaps of skin under their necks that can be pulled out quickly… to signal…”
The “mantidfly… has nearly identical forearms for capturing prey… long neck and bulging eyes are so similar that its front half is a virtual mantis carbon copy, even though the two insects are separated by hundreds of millions of years of insect evolution”
“Despite their phylogenetic distance, the social structure of ants and termites is remarkably similar,” including “construction of underground fungus gardens” which include “removing waste products, controlling pests” and using “antibiotics grown from bacteria.. on their body or in their guts”
“the lake stickleback populations… convergently lost most of their body armor and their spines shrank”
Losos especially highlights the repeated “adaptive radiation” of single populations diverging into the same niche-filling varieties in different locations, especially involving islands:
the birds in Galapagos and Australia “radiating” into finches, wrens, blackbirds, warblers, robins, etc, not descended but “convergent” with “Northern Hemisphere families”
“just like Anolis lizards and Mandarina snails… anatomically and ecologically different bats living in the same region were more closely related to each other” than “similar species in other regions”
However, as we’ve begun exploring the genomes of many of these convergences, we are finding that the features are not identical at the molecular level. If DNA is like a dictionary, there are multiple ways to spell many of the same words, or tell the same stories:
On humans and milk, “different mutations – each with the same effect of keeping the lactase gene switched on – evolved in the different populations”
“caffeine most likely evolved independently in the three types of plants” but “the NMTs modified in coffee were different from the ones modified in tea and cacao”
Thus, while all this convergence may have been unexpected by evolutionary thinking, the details and patterns of the convergence seems to be explainable by it. After describing the truly wonderful ability of anoles and geckoes to climb vertical surfaces with sticky toepads that have “millions of microscopic filaments called setae” which literally have “free electrons” that “can bond with electrons on the surface of… another object”:
“the best examples of repeated convergence are among closely related species… Sticky toepads have evolved eleven times in geckoes, and only two other times among the more than six thousand species of lizards”
If evolution is so repeatable, so often finding the same great solutions to the same problems, so often successfully filling environmental niches with the same kinds of creatures, does that make evolutionary progress inevitable? Losos highlights Dale Russell’s arguments that, even without the infamous asteroid giving rise to mammals, selection for larger reptilian brains could have naturally led to humanoid-looking reptiles with human-level intelligence. If the fine-tuning of the universe means that “it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming,” as Freeman Dyson said, does convergence mean evolution seems to have known we were coming, too?
Well, not quite. Losos says that to learn more amazing examples of convergence you should read Simon Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution and his newer The Runes of Evolution, along with George McGhee’s Convergent Evolution. For the rest of his book, Losos dives deeper into specific examples, including much of his own work – but unfortunately the details, while fascinating in their own rights, are not quite as exciting as I had hoped – with Losos eventually throwing some cold water on the extent of convergence as well.
Lizards and Guppies and Deer Mice, Oh My
Many Caribbean islands have varieties of anole lizards, such as one species with legs and body optimized for living on the ground, one species optimized for climbing narrow twigs on low foliage, and one species optimized for living on the tops of the trees. Each island has its own unique species, but there are corresponding species on other islands with similar-looking creatures filling the same niches. Surprisingly, genomic sequencing shows that the anoles on a given island are more closely related to each other than to their corresponding niche species on the other islands, meaning that one lizard species came to each island and just happened to diverge into evolving the same features to fill the same niches on each island! He then describes experiments revealing astonishing levels of changes with these features happening within several years! Losos tells similar tales about colorful and non-colorful guppies in Caribbean pools predictably responding to the introduction or removal of predators, and he reports on other experiments as well, including a giant experiment with deer mouse in the Midwest.
This is all pretty cool, but I couldn’t help thinking that this is all what creationists would definitely call micro-evolution, and all of these examples would fit right into their baraminology of diversity within created kinds. Furthermore, the information from the genome sequencing hasn’t quite reached the potential for the really interesting stuff – like being able to tell how many mutations it actually takes to evolve different degrees of change, and how random those mutations really are. We have enough data to tell that different populations apparently convergently evolved the same features and varieties, but when it comes to identifying specific changes, especially the ones under experiments, everything seemed to be just on the cusp of identifying how many mutations they took, or which mutations were involved, like we’re almost there but the book was written just a few years too early.
Evolving E. Coli Experiments
In the next section, Losos dives into the one area where we do have that kind of data about mutations, detailing the “Long-Term Evolution Experiment” (LTEE) on E. coli, which after a few decades now involves multiple pathways of tens of thousands of generations, with old generations frozen at regular intervals to allow comparisons and repeated tests. In addition to the general improvements in the bacteria’s ability to grow and reproduce, researchers have seen the evolution of a much-touted actual new feature: the ability to use citrate instead of glucose for energy in high-oxygen environments.
Due to modern sequencing technology, we’ve retraced and identified the exact mutation involved – and for a creationist it’s actually not that impressive. The bacteria already had the ability to process citrate in low-oxygen environments, so the mutation was simply a single copying error that turned on that existing feature in high-oxygen environments, where it was found to be advantageous. The most impressive detail was that there did seem to be a couple of “potentiating” mutations that had to take place first for this final mutation to be effective, so this is arguably a bona fide example of a successful mutation that required multiple steps.
But it’s also a bit of a letdown for this to be the most exciting thing that’s been discovered after tens of thousands of generations! It’s one thing to learn how many mutations it took to turn on a feature that was already there in a new condition. I want to know how many mutations it took to build that feature in the first place! I want know how many mutations it took to evolve guppy coloration or lizard leg variation, yes, but I really want to know how many mutations it took to evolve those amazing setae vertical grips! I expect these kinds of details may have fascinating implications for whether or not evolution happened, and if so how it did so. But the knowledge is just not quite there.
As the book draws to a close, Losos delves a bit into antibiotic resistance, hoping that our knowledge of convergence will help us better fight diseases by anticipating similar evolutionary responses in a variety of species. (This made me think about Edge of Evolution, wondering how many of those resistances reflect the strong improvements of an “arms race” and how many reflect the limited trade-offs of “trench warfare”.)
As for the broader implications, Losos circles back to his opening tour, arguing that Gould’s views on contingency were misunderstood, that nature is not really inevitable enough to produce humanoid reptiles, and that convergence is not quite as repeatable or inevitable as some seem to think. Nor does he suggest that any “natural genetic engineering” tricks supersede the good old “natural selection acting on random mutation” to produce the convergences we do see (Among other things, Perry Marshall would also complain about Losos perpetuating the notion that the human eye is backwards and thus inferior to the octopus). Ultimately, Improbable Destinies caught me up-to-date on the fascinating explosion in the science of genome sequencing and evolution experiments, and all the things we’re learning from it, but it mostly left me eagerly anticipating the next levels of discovery that could truly help answer the fascinating questions that those discoveries are pointing towards.
Look out, folks. Scientists may be on the verge of discovering another planet in our solar system, a hypothetical “Planet Nine” that could end up replacing that slot left by Pluto in the planetary pantheon.
No, it’s not named Nibiru, and it’s not coming for Earth. That’s a silly tale started in the 1990’s by someone claiming to talk to aliens, and it gets recycled every couple years by conspiracy theorists who attach it to whatever is the latest real dwarf planet or comet or other far-away object that NASA has discovered.
But there really might be another planet orbiting our Sun at the far reaches of the Solar System, so far away that all our telescopes and probes have never seen it.
There’s a bunch of stuff orbiting the sun way beyond Neptune in a region called the Kuiper belt, but most of the objects are too small and far away for us to know much about them yet. We knew about one – Pluto – and we used to call it a planet, until we realized there were a bunch of other objects like it out there, so we demoted it to “dwarf planet.” Outer space is huge, and even our best telescopes can only zoom in on so much of it at a time to hunt down these dim KBO’s (Kuiper belt objects). Thanks to improving technology, including larger and larger ground-based telescopes and the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, we’re starting to learn more and more about these other objects. (We’re up to five official dwarf planets – and counting – including one called Haumea that we just learned has its own ring!)
In 2014 some scientists noticed that several of these KBO’s all had a “coincidental” alignment in their orbits that looked just like you might have expected them to look, if, say, a planet the size of Neptune had flown past them. But, of course, they were all too far away for Neptune to have had this effect on them. So began the hunt for “Planet Nine.” Since then, we’ve been finding more and more signs of the gravitational effects of this mysterious hypothetical celestial body. They’ve slowly been narrowing the range of its potential location, and now they think they’ve got a specific orbit figured out to carry out a final search by telescope. It may take a few years, or only a few weeks, but sometime in the near future, this “Planet Nine” will either be found, or confirmed not to exist at all.
This could be a very exciting discovery in the history of space exploration, but there’s one interesting little detail. Neptune goes around the sun every 164 years. Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years. Even though we’ve known about Pluto for less than 100 years, we can calculate its orbital period from Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. But “Planet Nine” is so far away that it has a potential orbital period of…
10,000 to 20,000 years!
This could present an interesting little problem for young-earth creationists, especially those who believe the solar system is only 6,000 years old.
The Potential Conclusions
There are three potential kinds of conclusions, and we are hurtling rather quickly toward one of them.
Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine may not exist. The odds of its existence seem to be increasing with further scientific discoveries, but it still hasn’t been discovered and there could always be alternate explanations for the evidence it has allegedly left behind. This result would present no problems for young-earth creationists.
Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine exists, but its orbit could actually lead to problems with old-earth models. It’s possible that the planet could be discovered, but in such an orbit where calculations showed an apparent impossibility of going back millions of years, due to instabilities it would have caused in the solar system. This result would present no problems for young-earth creationists, and would even bolster their confidence.
Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine exists, with an orbital period of over 10,000 years, and clear evidence in the orientations of other objects that it has completed its orbit at least once. While anything could happen, this currently seems like the most likely option, so it’s worth exploring the potential reactions and repercussions.
The Potential Reactions
If the third option happens, this could be one of the strongest challenges ever to young-earth creationism. Christians who believe in deep time say the universe has not just the “appearance of age” but the “appearance of story,” that is, of specific events occurring in sequence and setting the stage for other events according to God’s perfect plan. A long-orbiting planet that was discovered by the effects of traveling that long orbit would be a clear demonstration of both age and story.
Deep time Christians may believe there is already plenty of evidence for such history, which young-earth creationists have not found convincing, and thus they may be skeptical that a new discovery would be interpreted any differently. But our solar system and its planets are much more familiar to the average person than other more distant and exotic objects, and unlike supernovas or fast radio bursts or even gravitational waves, everyone will hear about this planet and understand its significance very intuitively. If scientific materials start including a ninth planet after Neptune with an explicit number in the orbital column of, say, “14,000 years,” that would lead to obvious questions from Christians who have been taught that such lengths of time are incompatible with a sacred Scripture.
So how might young-earth creationist organizations respond? I can think of a few potential reactions.
Some might question the orbital period, since it would be a calculation that has not been empirically verified. However, this skepticism would come at a cost. Johannes Kepler was a devout Christian of the seventeenth century. His laws of planetary motion have long been seen by Christians as one of many evidences of an orderly universe established by an orderly God with intelligence and purpose. Even secular scientists marvel that the universe has this kind of reliability that lets us discover the way it works. It seems risky to try to save a favored Biblical interpretation by undermining the fundamental laws we believe God established.
Some might question whether the planet has completed an orbit around the sun since creation. If the planet is found from predictions based on its nudging effects on other planets from multiple paths around its orbit, this may not be a very compelling explanation. However, that may depend on how obvious or complicated such effects are, and how much room there is to reasonably doubt that scientists really know what they are talking about regarding such effects. Some may suggest God simply set the objects in “balance” around the sun and it’s only an assumption that they have affected each other. (In my opinion, this may be a likely response by some official organizations like AIG or CMI.)
Some might suggest that within the vastness of space and time, and the mystery of God, and the limited understanding of man, that there is some other way, inexplicable as it may seem, to reconcile these things that scientists focused on the conventional mindset just aren’t making the effort to consider. After all, we cannot be certain that time in the Kuiper belt passes the same way as it does on Earth, or that general relativity or black holes or some other as-yet-undiscovered celestial object or principle might play into this somehow, or that some critical mistake made by the scientists involved will later be discovered. (In my opinion, this may be a likely response by some unofficial groups or laypersons.)
There are many intelligent and creative young-earth creationists, and there may be other responses I cannot anticipate. Much will depend on the specifics of the discovery.
It is also important to recognize that there are many different flavors of young-earth creationism. While there is a general unity about the history of biology, there is a little more variation about geology. “Young Life Creationists” allow for an old earth, interpreting Genesis 1:1 to occur at an indeterminate period before the six days started in verse 3. There is even more flexibility when it comes to cosmology and the history of far-away objects that are not really mentioned in Scripture.
However, most tend to insist on the sun’s appearance on the fourth day of creation, and a long-orbiting Ninth Planet would suggest not just a universe but planets orbiting the sun for at least tens of thousands of years before the creation events described in Genesis. Some followers might be convinced by the above potential explanations, or others that may appear, but some may not be satisfied, and may experience a crisis of faith, or at least embark on some curious searching. It is important for Christians of all beliefs to be prepared for this.
Christians who accept deep time – whether evolutionary creationists or old-earth creationists – may be tempted to mock young-earth creationists in these situations, but I believe such disrespect is unwarranted and unhelpful. Young-earth creationists get enough mockery from atheists. They are sincerely committed to what they see as the only viable option for devoted Christians believing in the divine authority of Scripture, and thus diatribes about scientific evidence will not be compelling without a matching offer of plausible Biblical interpretation. The metaphorical interpretations and theological challenges of evolutionary theology are not likely to seem any more appealing to these Christians, but this situation could provide an opening for many for old-earth creationism, which tends to reject biological evolution but has few qualms with the long ages of cosmology. (I’m working on related resources at my Creation Explore site here.)
Many young-earth creationists may not be aware that old-earth creationists fully affirm Scriptural inerrancy, or that such a position was extremely common in the United States about a hundred years ago, and that many prominent Christians today have thoughtfully considered such positions and found them convincing, including Dr. William Lane Craig, a philosopher famous for defending the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection, and “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaf. Some may find this comforting. As such I would recommend even evolutionary creationists to suggest such a path for any brothers and sisters who might have such questions, especially if they still find evolution fundamentally untenable.
The simplest starting point is the difference between two small Hebrew words: bara and asah. Bara is a powerful active verb usually rendered “create” in English, suggesting, for instance, a deliberate creation out of nothing. Asah is somewhat more passive, often rendered “make” and subject to a variety of possible meanings, including the arrangement or organization of pre-existing materials. The first verse of Genesis barks forth with bara: “God created the heavens and the earth.” Some of the other parts of the story use the more passive asah, including the passage about God “making” the sun, moon, and stars, on the fourth day.
It is on this basis that many Christians have suggested that the light on the first day really came from the sun, created by God at the beginning (Even the ancient father Origen thought something like this made more sense, long before geologists started pushing back the timeline). In this view the fourth day still depicts God’s assignment of the celestial bodies as time-keepers for humanity, but it potentially represents their first appearance in the sky after the clearing of a dim watery haze, and with no less of a reality than the daily “appearance” that the sun “rises” and “sets.”
If this interpretation is viable, it neatly allows for years and years of orbiting planets, including our new potential Planet Nine. We don’t even have to get into animal death before the Fall – though deep time Christians have interpretations for that, too. But that may be a satisfying starting point.
Thus I would encourage young-earth creationists to keep an open mind about all of this. We don’t yet know what we’ll find out there. But we can all rejoice in the wonder of the universe God created and the way he set it up for us to explore it and discover it. In this way, each new discovery further reveals both the “infinite” majesty of God’s creation, as expressed in Genesis 1, and the “intimate” connection of God’s creation to humanity, as expressed in Genesis 2. Whatever we find, God is still Creator. And we are still his children.
George McCready Price was an early 20th century Seventh Day Adventist and committed young-earth creationist in an era where many (and allegedly most) American Christians were turning toward an old earth. He was one of the first to promote a detailed scientific account of “flood geology” and was a major influence on the YEC resurgence of the 1960’s and beyond. I found his 700-page tome The New Geology (1923) somewhere online and read it in entirety. (Sorry, I downloaded a PDF and have lost the original link.)
The 42 chapters are divided into sections.
Physiographic Geology (2 chapters) gives a general account of the Earth’s present distribution of land and sea and the different kinds of living things found in different parts of the world.
Structural Geology (2 chapters) describes the different kinds of minerals that are the “constituents of rocks” and introduces basic geological concepts of “formations” and their various inclines and “unconformities”
Dynamical Geology (11 chapters) discusses “the present action of the forces engaged in rock making and rock modification,” including chemical forces, the atmosphere, the erosive and transporting power of running water, ice, ocean waves and currents, living creatures and their role in producing peat, coral, and limestone, volcanoes, and earthquakes.
These sections are primarily presenting information, not theoretical interpretations, but Price takes ample opportunity throughout to point out where he sees facts as causing problems for old-earth or evolutionary views. or as potentially explainable by way of a fast flooding catastrophe.
Stratigraphical Geology (21 chapters) takes a detailed tour through the standard geological classification system, from “Pre-Cambrian Rocks”, to the “Ordovician System” and the “Silurian System,” and on through to the “Quarternary System”. Price describes the different types of fossils found in the different systems, generally accepting the classification system for the sake of discussion but vociferously disputing any interpretations about long lengths of time or any confidence in their accurate classifications and absolute ordering.
(I noticed that Price liked to highlight old “living genera” that “can not be distinguished” from present creatures, while Hitchcock liked to highlight the changing genera that were different from each time period.)
Theoretical Geology (6 chapters) closes with an organized interpretation built from the opinions scattered throughout the information in the previous chapters, arguing that the presently accepted history of geology is not properly supported by facts, and that fossils do not occur in a chronological order but show signs of formation in a “world catastrophe.” He closes with a brief chapter criticizing the “unscientific methods” regarding evolutionary claims around “the origin and antiquity of man.”
Decries the “unscientific” methods and interpretations and “assumptions” of standard geology. Claims to simply be requesting a fair hearing of his challenge to standard “dogma”: “a great world catastrophe… should always be kept in mind also as the alternative… Following true principles of scientific investigation, we ought to be able to decide very positively whether or not any such event has ever happened to our world” ““Claiming that this hypothesis has already been considered a century ago and found wanting, is palpably untrue. This hypothesis has never in the history of science had a sober and careful consideration, with a sufficient amount of evidence available to furnish the grounds for a safe and final decision of the case”
Geological layers in the wrong order
Price’s “most important law” of “the order” of strata: “Any kind of fossiliferous beds.. may be found occurring conformably on any other fossiliferous beds, ‘older’ or ‘younger’… we have not… examples of every possible combination,” and though he concedes “we usually find the fossils” in “relative sequence”, he says we have enough examples “to justify this broad general statement.” “This law alone is quite sufficient to relegate the whole theory of organic evolution to the lumber room of science.”
He especially was impressed by Chief Mountain and Crowsnest Mountain in Glacier National Park, “a huge Paleozoic island floating on a Cretaceous sea,” an “obvious contradiction to the traditional order of the rocks”, rejecting “unfounded theories” of folding which he compares to geocentric “epicycles”.
Describes Werner’s “mineral-onion coat” theory that minerals “always occurred in a definite sequence,” until “contradictory” examples “accumulated in such enormous numbers” and “real intellectual courage” overturned it. He now sees the subsequent “biological-onion coat” theory that fossils occur in sequence in a similar position, and he believes the accumulating contradictory examples will bring it to a similar collapse.
In contrast to “uniformitarianism,” Price distinguishes between “modern” and “ancient” deposits, claiming, for example, that “modern-forming” beds are “more or less a heterogeneous mixture,” while ancient ones are not. He interprets effects “of far greater intensity which may have operated in the past,” and arguing “we do not find now in progress” some effects seen from the past (though at one place he concedes, “it may be difficult to draw the line between these two kinds of deposits”)
Links geology to evolution, “the dominant idea, of course, in the minds of those who arranged the geological series, was the evolution theory regarding the development of life,”
claims “readjustment” of fossil classifications to better fit the expected order, deriding it all as a “purely artificial arrangement”
Perfect Pre-Flood Climate: “Hypothesis” of a former “equable climate all over the earth” without deserts or frozen regions in “a mantle of springlike loveliness,” discusses much evidence of warmer past in the arctic, etc, Quote geologists on uniformity of tropical conditions, “‘a non-zonal arrangement’ of climate”, Posits “a peculiar salubrity of the atmosphere which would secure a regularity of moisture… promoting a most luxuriant vegetation,” but “each locality having its own special flora” and thus “its own particular fauna”
Sudden Fossilizations: fossils that seem to be “buried suddenly”, shells “buried while the animals were still alive”, “abundant remains” in “natural graveyards”, fossils with “marvelous preservation” suggesting some “tremendous catastrophe”, sees sudden freezing of mammoths as part of this “sudden” and “permanent” change and evidence that “this change occurred within the human epoch”
Ecological zoning: Suggests “biological zones and districts” whereby “diverse faunas and floras may have existed contemporaneously in separated localities”, buried in “successive beds” by “a change in the currents”, “a current from a different direction bringing in some contemporary forms of life from a few hundred years away, or at the most merely a few miles away… Were there not zoological provinces and districts… in the olden time”
Suggestions explanation of “alternating layers of coal, shale, and limestone” by an “abnormal tidal action”
“The Flood prevailed over the whole earth a little more than a year,” but “the full recovery from it occupied much more time… the completion of the mountain making, and the spreading out of the drift over Western Europe and Northeastern America, may have occurred years or even centuries after the other geological work was done, and after practically the present land and ocean boundaries had been established”
Suggests “an astronomical cause.. a jar or a shock from the outside,” suggests the earth’s axis may have been changed from “perpendicular” “to its present inclined position,” and “the oceans would sweep a mighty tidal wave,” though he hedges “I do not affirm that this was actually the method” but is “impressed” with its potential explanatory power
Post-flood Ice Age: suggests “almost continuous precipitation” from “ocean waters cooling” and contacting “icy cold air,” perhaps for “years or even centuries,” providing “an easy explanation… of extended glacial action”
Admits it will be easy “to find objections” or “impossibilities”. “As one stands on the brink of the Grand Canon” or “the base of a Niagara… there are very many phenomena which seem beyond the reach of any explanations we may offer.” But has hope that “we shall probably improve our understanding… with further discoveries,” and is confident that his explanation is “so far superior to any hitherto offered.” “Future discoveries may amend and clarify” details of “this hypothesis of the new catastrophism,” but “are not likely to require any material changes in its essential features.”
Concepts Emphasized in Modern YEC
Were You There: “We have no direct and first-hand scientific witnesses… it is all circumstantial evidence”
On Geological Layers: “The student should not be misled by the appearances given in such tables as these, of the strata piled one above another in a regular order of superposition…. the rocks do NOT thus occur in a single case anywhere on earth”
“Trunks of old trees” extending through strata; “It frequently happens that a fossil tree is found extending up through two or more of these successive beds of coal, together with the intervening beds of shale or sandstone.”
“Sudden appearance” of fossils: “Evolutionists are justly surprised at the sudden appearance, in the lowest Cambrian rocks, of so many different species of quite highly organized animals, with only the most scanty evidence of any other lower and more embryonic forms of life having preceded them”
Coal formations via “luxurious vegetation” that was “swept” like a “raft” on an “enormous scale… into lakes or valleys”
Possibility of Living Dinosaurs: On plesiososaurs, “From the frequent reports by competent observers… some of these creatures may have survived to our time.” Pterosaurs… would serve to justify the tradition of flying dragons”
Connecting Fall, Flood, and Restoration: “These unanswerable proofs… recording the death and burial of that beautiful world… come to us with the sweet assurance that some day the bright, happy conditions of Edenic life will be restored to our sin-blasted planet, and God’s redeemed people will shine forth in the restored image of divine beauty
Distinguishing between “facts and conclusions”, decrying “unwarranted assumptions” behind the “dogma” of uniformity, which should really be a “hypothesis,” and asking for an “open mind” for his ideas.
Affirming belief in compatibility: “I believe that the Bible and the book of nature have both the same Author””
Rejecting regional flood interpretations: words that “express the absolute universality of the Flood…are repeated over and over again”.
Impending Doom: “the doctrine of uniformity as taught by Lyell has also fallen into disrepute… Only a question of time until the world will see the complete collapse of that doctrine
Says we are also learning that distinctions of “species… were marked off on altogether too narrow lines… It is perfectly evident that both plants and animals have varied much more in a natural way than used to be thought possible; and hence two or more comparatively different forms may very well be supposed to be of a common descent… From this, it further appears that the problem of accounting for the modern diversity of animals (and plants) as survivors from a universal Deluge has been greatly simplified; for the more variation we admit as possible, the easier it is to account for the present fauna (and flora), since fewer original forms would be required to begin the present stock.”
“Doubtless our old ideas of the limits of a ‘species’ will now have to be enlarged so as to include perhaps all the forms now listed under a genus, perhaps all the members of a family.”
“Most of the ‘species’ under any given genus.. Are probably artificial distinctions… probably all descended from one stock. In some instances, perhaps even the different genera of a family may be thus of a common origin… this is by no means to concede the doctrine of evolution… a correct view of geology forever puts the evolution theory out of possible consideration… the origin of variations does not touch the problem of accounting for the originals out of which these are derived.”
Random Notable Quotes
Refers to the “unscientific” and “prodigal use of many causes when one would be sufficient” (this is in contrast to Pye-Smith’s “diversity of effects” needing a “diversity of causes”)
Sauropod design: Quotes Lull on sauropods: “The skeleton of one of these creatures is a marvel of mechanical design; the bones of the vertebral column are of the lightest possible construction consistent with strength, the bony material being laid down only where stresses arise… The assembled skeleton reminds one forcibly of a cantilever bridge borne on two massive piers…”
On convergent evolution: “Ichthyosaurs.. are especially plentiful… must have looked almost exactly like the modern dolphins and porpoises,” which “the evolutionists call.. a remarkable case of ‘parallel development’… there are almost innumerable cases of such ‘parallel development’ all through the plant and animal kingdoms
Here’s an idea that didn’t take: He gives evidence to disprove that “volcanic vents are connected with any very deep-seated part of the earth’s interior,” but rather promotes a theory that “lava beds have originated from burning coal beds”
While we need hypotheses to make progress in science, “hypotheses are always dangerous things… because of the ease with which it seems to help us explain other facts, the more surely do we become its slaves… if this hypothesis happens to be really wrong… often we will not listen to the testimony of others who claim to have tested it, if their results do not tally with what our pet hypothesis has taught us”
Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle explores the details of feathers and why they are so amazing. The book is filled with interesting facts about all the different kinds of feathers (Example: most birds have between 1 and 25 thousand, but only a few dozen flight feathers), but it is mostly focused on exploring the incredibly lightweight, watertight, insulated, beautifully-colored, multi-functional natural wonder that even evolutionary scientists call a “miracle.”
Interesting Info on Feather Design
“Feathers are unbelievable,” Feduccia said, and his voice took on a tone of wonder I would hear again and again… “They have all of these incredible aerodynamic features – lightweight, with graded flexibility; they’re perfect airfoils; they can work together in slotted wings with high lift at low speeds.
Feathers cluster “in well-defined tracts,” which “offers two advantages: It distributes plumage across the entire body while allowing skin between the tracts to remain relatively bare” for “regulating body temperature.” They “may also play a role in how feathers move, helping to concentrate the relevant muscles in discrete lines… Each follicle is surrounded by strong muscles and nerves that give birds surprising agility with individual feathers. They can fluff them for warmth, lift them for preening or display, and even make fine adjustments during flight to maximize aerodynamic efficiency… Coordinating such movements is quite an engineering feat. It would be like a person straightening their part with a thought, twitching individual ear hairs, or accurately judging wind speed from the play of a breeze across their eyebrows.”
“Engineers call feathers the most insulating material ever discovered.” Tiny birds, while operating at a body temperature several degrees higher than ours, can maintain a “difference between the outdoor air temperature… as large as an astonishing 140 degrees Fahrenheit.” The complex layers of barbs and barbules can can efficiently trap a large amount of air molecules “as a barrier.” “With their intricate air-trapping microstructure, down feathers are the most naturally insulative material on earth, and birds have the ability to fluff them up manually, essentially adjusting their R-value at will.” The lightness of this material allows birds to fly. Birds and even other animals will scavenge stray feathers to insulate nests and burrows.
Different kinds of feathers are created by “varying the location and timing of keratin production at the follicle collar… To accomplish these feats, the follicle’s cells must act in perfect concert, a symphony of starts and stops that is controlled by a particular gene” (the Sonic Hedgehog hox gene). Human industry has yet to create a synthetic material that matches the insulation power with the same lightness and durability: “Feathers grow that way naturally, but manufacturing such finely branched filaments is extremely difficult.” (These downy feathers, however, are not waterproof, and require a covering of watertight contour feathers, and extra parental care for downy young until they grow that outer layer. This presents an evolutionary challenge, as described below.)
Feathers keep birds from freezing by being so insulative, but it’s just as amazing that they don’t make birds overheat. “When a bird takes flight, it suddenly finds itself producing seven, ten or even twenty times the body heat it had while perched.” Since they already operate “within a few degrees of the point at which proteins in living cells break down faster than the body can replace them,” temperature regulation is crucial, and involves adjusting feather positions and increasing blood flow to bare portions (apteria). Additionally, a bird’s “complex system of nine or more air sacs to supplement their lungs,” which “increases the efficiency” to allow flying, also “dramatically expands the surface area available for internal evaporation,” releasing extra heat through the mouth by panting.
On the “amazing” “flexibility” of feathers for real-time flight adjustments: A falcon “dove after a lure… accelerating up to 157 miles per hour before neatly catching it and pulling up,” experiencing a calculated gravitational force of “twenty-seven Gs“! (“Fighter pilots risk losing consciousness at anything over nine.”) Other examples of “airflow management” include reducing drag to increase flight efficiency. “Vultures, eagles, and other soaring birds use small adjustments of their spread wing-tip ‘fingers’ to manipulate air currents or change speed and orientation, and all birds utilize feather movements to instinctively alter the turbulence patterns around their wings. Slots can be opened or closed to direct air… covert feathers can be raised or lowered like tiny flags.” (No wonder aircraft engineers study birds to find ways to increase gas mileage!)
“Owl feathers feature barb extensions” that not only increase efficiency but also “muffl[e] the sound of their approach” – except for the Scops Fishing Owl, which hunts prey underwater and doesn’t need the stealth factor!
The watertightness of outer/contour feathers is not fully understood but seems to involve a high number of “touch points,” and “air pockets” between them, that repel water molecules. “Considering their light weight, flexibility, and thinness, feathers offer one of nature’s most versatile and efficient waterproofing membranes.” There are also beautiful adaptations: Diving cormorants have a slight structure modification that allows their “outer feathers” to get soaked, which adjusts their buoyancy as they dive for fish, “while still keeping their skin and down feathers sealed inside a watertight blanket.” At the other end of the spectrum in the dry desert, the sandgrouse has a different feather structure that absorbs so much water that birds have been observed “methodically soaking their chests” in pools to allow “thirsty chicks… to eagerly drink at Papa’s breast, sucking water straight from his feathers.”
While many birds “snap” their wings in “percussive notes” for mating rituals, the club-winged manakin takes it to another level with the “odd shape” of its feather wings: “This rapid vibration brought the wings together repeatedly, striking the enlarged clublike secondaries together in a way that forced the bent one to saw back and forth across a row of tiny ridges on the adjacent shaft… Each wing was indeed acting as a tiny violin, with the bent feather tip serving as the pick or bow, the ridges as strings, and the swollen, hollow feather shafts as the resonating chamber, amplifying and sustaining the tone.” (This was not understood until the relatively recent “breakthrough” of “high-speed video.”)
Birds regularly replace their feathers through molting, which is needed to maintain function after wear-and-tear and also to try to help manage the ubiquitous issue of bird lice. Sometimes molting changes colors that correlate with the mating season.
Interesting Theories on Feather Evolution
Hanson describes the old scales-to-feather hypothesis that never had any evidence and the new Stage I to V theory that seems to at least have some evidence for it from evolutionary development. Hanson describes Archaeopertyx as well as the recently uncovered feathered dinosaur fossils, but he notes the “temporal paradox,” highlighted by minority BAND scientists (Birds Are Not Dinosaurs), that the earlier stages are in all the later-dated fossils, while Archaeopteryx’s much older feathers are the asymmetrical flight feathers, thought to be the last stage to evolve. Hanson seems to suggest that the discovery of the even-earlier Anchiornis resolved this paradox, because the bird had some lower-stage feathers, but since it also had the flight feathers, we still seem to have a curious sudden appearance of those. (There is also evidence that Archaeopteryx molted, suggesting the function has been around about as long as feathers themselves.)
On the evolution of theropod dinosaurs into birds, Hanson describes some evidence for the current consensus but also notes the dissenting views of Alan Feduccia, a self-described “old-school Darwinian” who thinks birds came from a different ancestor. On the Stage theory of feather evolution, he “questions the usefulness of Prum’s downlike Stage II feathers,” which “lose most of its insulative value when wet… Young ostriches caught out in the rain often die of exposure, even in the African heat. In Prum’s model, however, contour feathers evolved after downy plumes.” Feduccia also thinks the “host of similar traits” between birds and theropods “came about” through “convergent evolution,” which points to the curious flexibility of one person’s homology to be another’s convergent evolution.
A simpler example of convergent evolution: Carrion birds lack feathers on their heads, which seems to keep them from getting blood and guts stuck to their heads as they plunge them into their carcass meals. “For carrion birds, the loss of feathers is such a good idea that it has evolved at least twice, in different places, in totally different groups of species… The New World and Old World vultures are not related; their likeness evolved from the practicalities of their grisly diet.”
(In an unrelated example, the book notes the “more than two dozen independent and unrelated times membranes [flaps of skin] evolved for vertebrate gliding and flight” in non-birds.)
The current consensus for the evolution of bird flight involves Wing Assisted Incline Running by climbing steep slopes or trees, a hypothesis that is a sort of hybrid between the ground-up and tree-down hypotheses, which both had inconvenient difficulties.
On the development of flight with cooling mechanisms: “Innovation in nature often occurs at stress points, places where competing adaptive pressures create an evolutionary dilemma… powered flight and specialized cooling mechanisms developed in tandem.” If “dinosaurs were warm-blooded creatures, then the basics of avian cooling must have already been in place in theropods… the result is a complex system of feather manipulation, controlled blood flow, and evaporative cooling that allows most birds to dispel far more heat than they produce, even while flying on a warm day.”
Challenges to Evolution and Creation
I think the “sudden appearance” / “temporal paradox” of feathers in the fossil record, and the questionable usefulness of the increasing stages point to difficulties for theories of unguided, gradual development. A few examples of convergent evolution add a curious inconvenience. And many of the amazing features seem incredibly complex.
At the same time, I think these features also present challenges to young-earth creationism and its “perfect paradise paradigm.” While complex mating rituals would certainly fit the original commands to “be fruitful and multiply,” the clear adaptations for predator/prey relationships are more curious.
Did owls have barb extensions before the Fall if they didn’t hunt small mammals? Did vultures have bald heads? Did diving birds have adaptations to survive dozens of G forces and adjust their feather buoyancy if they didn’t eat underwater fish? And if the pre-Fall climate was globally lush, as some have conjectured, did the desert sandgrouse have its uniquely absorbent structure?
I suppose the observation that many feathers involve multiple functions would support an idea that these features could have existed with different, but still beautifully designed, functions (although multi-functionality also makes it easier to imagine gradual evolution of complex features).
However, provided the theologies are equally valid, such designs seem to me more naturally indicative of an old-earth creation or theistic evolution type of view, with animals surviving in harsh environments and predator/prey relationships with beautifully designed features that allow a variety of creatures to survive in a “very good” but not yet “perfect” world.
Regardless of how they got here, feathers are marvelous, and thanks to Thor Hanson’s book, I can appreciate their wonder just a little bit more.
In Rare Earth, Ward and Brownlee make a detailed and fascinating case that life may be very common in the universe, but complex or animal or intelligent life may be very uncommon. Given naturalistic assumptions about life’s origin and evolutionary progression on Earth, they explore numerous difficulties for both attaining and maintaining life over millions or billions of years, and the likely uncommon attributes of our planet that have made this possible here.
“As early as 3.8 billion years ago… life seems to have appeared simultaneously with the cessation of the heavy bombardment.” (p.61) On progress of abiogenesis theories: “No one has yet discovered how to combine various chemicals in a test tube and arrive at a DNA molecule.” Furthermore, “with an oxygen-free atmosphere the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth’s surface would have been far higher… making delicate chemical reactions on the planet’s surface very difficult.” (p.62) The recent discoveries of “extremophiles” has suggested hydrothermal vents as a possible origin of life, and also enhanced the hopes of finding creatures in extreme conditions elsewhere in the universe. (Although hydrothermal vents are connected to plate tectonics and Earth’s global temperature system, which require a number of parameters to even exist, much less be maintained for billions of years – see below).
However, while single-celled creatures have long been common on Earth, more advanced creatures took longer to arise and may require specific characteristics for their arrival. Additionally, they have a narrower range of habitability; “Complex metazoans tolerate a far narrow range of environmental conditions than do microbes,” (ex. 0-50 degrees C compared to 100+ C) and are “far more susceptible to extinction caused by short-term environmental deterioration.”
External Threats to Maintaining Life
A planet’s star must have a fairly constant energy output, but even the best-case scenario involves a gradually increasing brightness that the planet must compensate. “On Earth, the maintenance of a relatively constant temperature has been attained through a gradual reduction in greenhouse gases as the amount of energy from the sun has increased, thus keeping temperatures in check.” (p.164)
Threats to maintaining life include asteroids, supernovae, and gamma ray bursts.
Some of these factors limit a habitable time window in the history of the universe; some dangers would have been more common in the past. Stars also would not have produced heavier elements in the first generations. On the other hand, radioactive elements, important for regulating temperature, “are produced by supernovae explosions, and their rate of formation is declining with time.” Newer stars “have less of these radioisotopes” than our sun. “It is entirely possible that any true Earth clones now forming around other stars would not have enough radioactive heat to drive plate tectonics.” (p.30)
The book discusses the importance of Jupiter. It’s large enough and close enough to limit the amount of deadly asteroids hitting Earth, but not so large or so close, or too elliptical in orbit, or having too many more similar large objects like itself and Saturn, to threaten the stable orbit of Earth itself.
Additionally, the relatively large, close moon plays an important role in stabilizing Earth’s axis tilt over long periods of time. The moon’s formation appears to have required a very precise collision with a large object at just the right time in Earth’s history for the collision to have distributed the right elements into the right places. If its formation had left it rotating in the opposite direction, its gravitational tidal effects (also important) would have slowly spun it into the Earth, instead of slowly spinning away, which also means there is a time limit to both its tidal and stabilizing properties.
Internal Requirements to Maintaining and Progressing Life
The inter-connected role of plate tectonics, water, and carbon dioxide seems crucial to maintaining complex life on planet Earth.
“For complex life to be attained (and then maintained), a planet’s water supply (1) must be large enough to sustain a sizable ocean… (2) must have migrated to the surface from the planet’s interior, (3) must not be lost to space, and (4) must exist largely in liquid form. Plate tectonics plays a role in all four of these criteria” (p.208)
There is some mystery to the source of Earth’s water, given planetary formation theories, but somehow “the volume of water was sufficiently large to buffer global temperatures, but small enough so that shallow seas could be formed by the uplifting of continents,” which are “necessary for limestone formation” and “continental weathering.” (p.264) “The violent events” of early Earth “may have determined the final abundance of water and carbon dioxide… If Earth had had just a little more water, continents would not extend above sea level. Had there been more CO2, Earth would probably have remained too hot to host life.” (p.51)
Some planets in our solar system have volcanoes but Earth is the only known with “linear mountain ranges,” caused by plate tectonics. This cycle involves subduction zones in the ocean. Due to comparative density, “continents cannot be destroyed (though they can be eroded)… Since the formation of our planet, the total area of oceanic plates has gradually diminished as the area of continental plates has grown” (p.201) Volume of continents is still increasing, but if it had been higher earlier in Earth’s history, its affects on atmospheric climate would have been more hostile to life.
“The average temperature of the Moon is -18 degree C.. because it has no appreciable atmosphere.” Without ours, Earth’s temperature “would be about the same as that of the Moon,” below the freezing point of water. (p.207) Plate tectonics maintain the “tiny fraction” of important greenhouse gases, acting as a “global thermostat” through CO2 cycles with volcanoes / weathering / limestone, that require shallow surface water and other factors to work. (p.208)
Some Curious Details Regarding Evolutionary History
Prokaryotes to eukaryotes: “It appears that attaining the eukaryotic grade was the single most important step in the evolutionary process that culminated in animals on planet Earth.” (p.88) “Eukaryotes… have repeatedly evolved multicellular forms.” (p.89) “Some species of bacteria… seem indistinguishable from fossil forms… 3 billion years old… The majority of eukaryotic species… seem to persists for… 5 million years or less.” (p.89)
“The jump from single-celled.. to organisms of multiple cells requires numerous evolutionary steps.” A “brave (or lucky) morphological change,” an organism “shed its external cell wall,” its protective “tough outer coating,” so “individual cells could begin exchanging material”. (this apparently initially harmful event happened multiple times?) (p.101)
The book discusses evidence of iron-banded formations and the “oxygen revolution”. This is one example of many in the book where there is evidence that changes happened over a long periods of time, but unknown or unconvincing explanations as to how or why these changes occurred naturally or by chance.
Cambrian Explosion: Genetics shows diversification “must” have taken place before the Cambrian explosion, but paleontologists are “stymied by an almost complete lack of fossils” (p.103) “It is clear that the evolution of animals occurred not as a gradual process but as a series of long periods of little change, punctuated by great advances.” Of the Cambrian Explosion: “In this single, approximately 40-million-year interval, all major animal phyla (all of the basic body plans found on our planet) appeared… Although the number of species… has been increasing through time, the number of higher taxa, such as phyla, has been decreasing.” (p.140-142)
Inertial interchange event: “Much of this continental drift happened during the Cambrian evolutionary explosion… no more than 10 to 15 million years. The continental shifts were quite dramatic.” (p.145) Seems to be connected to periods of Snowball Earth followed by lush green: “Both of the two great episodes of Snowball Earth nearly ended life on Earth, as we know it. But each, ultimately, may have been crucial in stimulating the great biological breakthroughs necessary for animal life: the evolution of the eukaryotic cell and the diversification of animal phyla.” (p.121) Not just oxygen but continent formations and phosphorous levels also correlate with rise of large/complex “animals.”
A contemporary of Miller and Hitchcock, old-Earth creationist John Pye Smith published a series of lectures called On the relation between the Holy Scriptures and some parts of Geological Science. It was apparently influential enough to be addressed by young-Earth creationists Whitcomb and Morris a hundred years later. (I read the book, free in the public domain, via Google Books.)
Biblical Inspiration. Smith opens each lecture with a Bible verse and peppers his discussion with Scriptural references, often relating to praising the “works of God” and opportunities for man to seek them out and gain understanding of them. He clearly interpreted geological time in this context, and insisted on the need for correct interpretation.
Appeal to Authority. While Smith’s lectures included many claims of evidence for his geological positions, he included far more “appeals to authority” of geologists. In a supplemental note he recognizes the weakness of this approach but defends it on the grounds of the difficulty of explaining the evidence to those without geological training, and argues for its validity “on account of the moral and intellectual character of the witnesses, their scientific qualifications, their opportunities for investigation upon the largest scale, their original prepossessions against this conclusion, and finally their number and diversity as to country, party, religious denomination, and other circumstances which are rational guarantees against prejudice.”
Conservation of Miracles. Smith believed in miracles and divine interventions, but he disliked Scriptural or geological interpretations that required inserting ad hoc miracles all over the place.
Human Dignity. Smith would often bestow flowery praise on the motives and intentions of people before ruthlessly criticizing their positions for their ignorance or logical inconsistencies. Yet in the midst of such takedowns, Smith took care to humanize and value the dignity of those he disagreed with, whether “scriptural geologist” (i.e. young-earth creationist of the time) or atheist. He repeatedly expressed hopes for the salvation of the latter, and his disappointments at attitudes and actions that seemed to push them away from the faith.
Lecture 1. Summary:Geology is complicated and requires a lot of knowledge of many fields to truly understand, but the facts have been carefully and solidly established that the Earth is much older than a few thousand years. This does not contradict a correct interpretation of Scripture, as there is perfect harmony between the word and works of God, but some perceive a conflict, having sincere intentions but poor knowledge of geology, and have tried to argue against the established geological facts but only revealed their own ignorance.
“a vague idea has obtained circulation, that certain geological doctrines are at variance with the Holy Scriptures… I profess my conviction that it is nothing but a semblance, and that, like many other difficulties on all important subjects which have tried the intellect of man, it vanishes before careful and sincere examination.”
“Geology… The facts on which it rests… have… been collected by the assiduous labour of many men of the finest talents ; and those facts have not only been brought together and freely exposed to examination, but they have been subjected to the most jealous scrutiny and the most rigorous tests that can be imagined”
Smith says old-Earth creationists like Hitchcock have been accused by young-Earth creationists like Penn of atheism, but claims they “have had no idea of doing without God, because they suppose the world to have had an earlier origin than” the censurer “admits : for, at whatever period it began to exist, it would alike require infinite power and wisdom to create and arrange it.” Such writers “are sincerely desirous of vindicating Revelation from the attacks of scientific sceptics,” but “Such persons will see that these authors do not understand the subject about which they write ; and they will see a spirit manifested which will not greatly exalt their ideas of the influence of Christianity.”
Lecture 2.Summary: Describes the patterns of geological strata and the fossils found within them, arguing for distinct creations over periods of time
The surface of the earth is not a boring flat plain, but:
“a number of extended masses of various thickness, and spread out one over the other… from the horizontal position which originally but at different times belonged to the larger number, they have been inclined in all degrees… All strata follow antecedent ones in an order which is certain and invariable for every region of the earth… Nowhere, however, is the entire series found. Some member or many are wanting in every assignable locality ; but they are never put in a violated order. … analogy of composition, order of succession, and (which is a most interesting and decisive evidence,) similarity of organic remains, produce a sufficient equivalence ; and when these three kinds of proof concur, we have a complete demonstration.”
“The rocks which lie the lowest in the descending order… are in the state which has been produced by the prodigious heat… The rocks which lie above these… are all composed of… different mixtures of sand, clay, and lime… These have been washed away from the previously elevated rocks… The lower strata… are generally of the greatest extent… The higher and newer are severally of less magnitude in every dimension.
An aside, after discussing the merits of Hutton:
“That any physicists and philosophers are hostile and scornful with regard to Christianity, is deeply to be lamented…but to treat them with injustice is not the way which Jesus Christ would have adopted, and it can tend only to render their prejudices more inveterate.”
On the distribution of animal remains:
“all belong to Classes and Families similar to those which now exist ; but in Genera and Species there are remarkable differences. The earliest are … most widely differing from animals and plants of the existing creation… Each system of strata has species which belong to itself… This fact is among the greatest discoveries of modern times. For it we are indebted to… Dr. William Smith… Each species has a definite period of existence… One species dies off, and its place is taken by another of the same genus ; till at last, in many cases, the whole genus ceases…”
On different kinds of preservation:
“Strata containing shelly, crustaceous, or coralline remains, generally present appearances” of living and dying “on the muddy or sandy bottoms of the waters… spread in beautiful order over considerable areas” with “the preservation of their slender, delicate, and fragile parts.” “There are other cases, in which the organic remains, be they plants, shells, or bones, exhibit proofs of having been washed away from their native seats… and thus transported into new situations” where “the separated parts have become imbedded in the muddy bottom.”
On the implications of differences for common ancestry:
“in the case of countries widely separated, the plants and animals proper to each region so differ from those of every other, as to impress us with the conviction that they have not been derived from a common ancestry for each species, in any one locality upon the face of the earth. They are respectively adapted… These conditions cannot be transferred to other situations. The habitation proper to one description of vegetable or animal families would be intolerable, and speedily fatal, to others…. Hence it follows that there must have been separate original creations, perhaps at different and respectively distant epochs. Man, whom the Creator formed to ” have dominion over the works of his hands,”… was brought into being in one pair ; from which all the varieties of our kind have descended” – not from “separate primary ancestors.”
Lecture 3. Summary: Sets up the “particular details” of how his lectures appear to be “at variance” with “certain sentiments or interpretations of “the Holy Scriptures,” and with his assurance that he will later provide explanations. Lists “opinions” regarding creation in six days, the sun on the fourth day, the initial placement of all land-animals in one region, and the lack of pain and death before the sin of the first human beings.
“It is not the word of God, but the expositions and deductions of men, from which I am compelled to dissent.”
Notes some “commentators” have supposed “as the mediate cause of the longevity of the antediluvian patriarchs, a peculiarly salubrious quality in the atmosphere, which they also suppose to have been destroyed by the deluge, or in consequence of it. But this is an imaginary hypothesis, involving heavier difficulties than what it professes to remove…” since “geological evidence” points to past periods as having been “the reverse of salubrious” to the men and animals “now exist.”
Against the gap theory:
“there is no break in the vast chain of organic development, till we reach the existing order of things… the systems of life have been varied from time to time, to suit the altered condition of the planet, but never extinguished.”
Against the “interpretation” that “the sun and all the other heavenly bodies were created on the fourth day after the creation of the earth.”:
“the spheroidal figure of the earth, its position in the planetary system, its rotation producing the nights and days… the existence of water, and that of an atmosphere, both definitely mentioned, and the creation of vegetables on the third day, — necessarily imply the presence and the operations of the sun : unless we resort to some gratuitous supposition of multiplied miracles, of the most astounding magnitude.”
Describes his belief in miracles, yet thinks that the “wise and gracious design” of the universe is “weakened… by those who plead for an exuberance of miracles…
our ” God is the Rock,” eternal and unchangeable in his attributes ; ” his work is perfect.” He has constructed a system“ which does not “need the interposition of correcting and repairing,” except as regards “the condition of created beings, weak, changeable…”
Lecture 4.Summary: Discusses the apparent “discrepancy” of “the Deluge.” Notes the universality of ancient flood traditions but, like Miller, notes that this does not prove the “geographical universality of the deluge itself.” Criticizes the Deluge as an explanation for every geological feature, rather than a “diversity of effects” implying “a diversity of causes”. Also criticizes those who make the Flood too small, viewing the truth “between these extremes.” Describes Buckland’s view that the “present surface of the Earth” (but not the layers below it) display “the effect of the diluvial waters”.
In what situations soever the remains of animal and vegetable beings were found, it was at once assumed that they were antediluvian relics, brought thither by the flood. It seems never to have entered into men’s minds, to consider the condition of these organic remains, their place in natural history, their relations to each other and the presence or absence of marks of transport… The scooping out of valleys, whether with the most abrupt sides and tortuous courses, or in smooth and gentle undulations of outline, found forthwith a ready explanation ; without any exercise of mind upon the inquiry whether such a diversity of effects does not imply a proportionate diversity of causes in nature, intensity and duration.
The flood must have caused “considerable action,” but “that they should have produced the stratifications of the earth, is a notion which must appear impossible to anyone who has a tolerably correct idea of what those stratifications really are.”
Lecture 5.Summary: Geologists accepted that the Deluge did not produce the “secondary” geologic layers but for a time argued for a universal flood causing the “drift” on the surface. Smith argues that current knowledge shows the global diversity of this drift cannot be explained by a single deluge. He also argues for other problems with a global interpretation, while hinting at a forthcoming Scriptural argument that Noah’s deluge only required enough water to destroy the human race of the time.
“That a transient deluge, like that described in the scriptures, could have produced, and brought into its present situation, all the diluvium which is now spread over the surface of this continent, will not (it seems to me) be admitted for a moment by any impartial observer. It has obviously been the result of different agencies and of different epochs”
Quoting Sedgwick on the changing science:
“In retreating where we have advanced too far, there is neither compromise of dignity nor loss of strength… All the noble generalizations of Cuvier, and all the beautiful discoveries of Buckland, as far as they are the results of fair induction, will ever remain unshaken by the progress of discovery… It was indeed a most unwarranted conclusion, when we assumed the contemporaneity of all the superficial gravel on the earth…
Discusses collection of volcanic hills in Europe with complex intersections of lava flows and different materials of strata, with “light substances” of “volcanic products” resting on the hills that would have been “washed away” by a flood. So “Either, then, the eruptions which produced them, took place since the deluge,” with Smith arguing there was not enough time to produce the sequence of events described, “or that deluge did not reach to this part of the earth.”
One of Smith’s most provocative claims, regarding the arrival, preservation, and dispersal of all species from every continent and island, that it would require “miracles more stupendous than any that are recorded in Scripture, even what appear appalling in comparison. The great decisive miracle of Christianity, the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, — sinks down before it.”
Lecture 6. Summary: Rejects idea of altering interpretation of Genesis to fit science, and rejects idea that the language is poetic or that the days can be expanded to fit long ages. But he argues that the first verse is an “independent proposition,” not necessarily connecting the six days to the beginning. He criticizes numerous young-Earth “scriptural geologists,” lavishing high praise upon their intentions and character before ruthlessly criticizing their positions, accusing them of logical inconsistencies and general ignorance of the science of geology.
Criticizes Henry Cole (“a zealous maintainer of the gospel according to his own conceptions of it,”) for adamant position about Genesis 1:1, for quoting Luther’s opinion as if divine despite Luther’s wrong scientific views of his time, and also for missing the humility of Luther, who said of creation, “with respect to the particular things, there is very much that is involved in difficulty and doubt.”
On the “hypothesis” that God created fossils in the rocks:
“We find the dead parts of animals… the teeth with their sockets… the provisions and modes of nutrition…” to say that “these objects were never the parts of any living creature… Shall we throw such an advantage as this into the hands of the atheist ?”
On the style of the creation account in Genesis:
“notion, that we have here ” the language of figure and poetry,” is palpably erroneous. The whole is in the style of plain narrative, evidently intended to be understood as a simple, straight-forward, unadorned history…”
However, it uses “a mode of expression adapted, by the graciousness of Divine condescension, to the capacity and habits of thought which belong to men in an unpolished state of society.”
This is indeed the very principle which will… be adequate to carry us out of the difficulty, without sacrificing the reality of the things related, or invading the truth and majesty of Divine Inspiration.
Rejects idea that “the Six Days of Creation may be understood of periods of time.” Despite superficial resemblances to geological order, “the scheme fails when it is attempted to be carried into detail.” Besides, it “requires a stretch of hyperbole which would be monstrous.”
On those who regard “the interval from the Creation to the Deluge, as affording a sufficient lapse of time for the deposition of the chief part of the stratified formations,”
they in general have not spent those years of patient application which the case demands in order to have the prerequisites for forming a correct judgment, but they take up an alluring book… From this they select a few statements, which, by their want of previous knowledge, they are exposed to no small risk of failing to understand…. He finds incoherencies, and has no suspicion that they are produced only by the fragmentary character of his own attainments… forms a theory of his own which delightfully harmonizes with his views of the scriptural cosmogony : he favours the world with it : and, in the end, he is surprised and grieved, and perhaps irritated, that the geologists do not adopt his views.”
Other criticisms of scriptural geologists: Says one “commits the great fault of drawing universal inferences from particular facts and occasional circumstances, without any sufficiently comprehensive induction;” Another: “the keeping out of sight other facts which would be adverse to their hypotheses, probably from not being themselves acquainted with those facts”
Quoting an article: “The anti-geologists taunt the geologists with their diversities of opinion, but keep back that no two of themselves agree : whereas the geologists, amidst all their controversies, are unanimous, as to the main points.”
Quotes a writer saying when you argue with a scriptural geologist “upon the known and incontrovertible facts of Geology”
“he cannot deny them ; but… you perceive that his mind has not really grappled with them… He replies ‘ How do we know that it was not a miracle or, ‘ How do we know that things were then as they are now or, ‘ I will believe God rather than man ;’ or, ‘ We know nothing at all about the matter ;’ or something equally vague, and to which of course no reply can be given. But the most common resource is, ‘ The Deluge did it all.’ This reply exhibits either complete ignorance of the facts, or a rejection of the inevitable conclusions which they suggest…”
Lecture 7. Summary: Sketching a Scriptural defense of his positions, Smith argues that the Infinite God condescended to be described in finite, anthropomorphic language that could be understood by man. He refers to older metaphorical interpretations to argue that “references to natural objects” should also be “comported with the knowledge of the age.” Defends a figurative use of “universal terms” to argue that both the six-day creation and the Flood described a limited region of the “earth.” Presents reasons for accepting animal death before the Fall and other related issues, all in the context of an insistence on a true and divinely-inspired Scripture.
Says the Scriptures, “when understood in the sense intended by the Author of inspiration ; possesses the purity of the best refined silver, the infallibility of unmixed truth.” We must seek “the genuine meaning of the divine oracles, without prepossession in favour of some interpretations, or prejudice against others. Our honest question must be, ” What saith the Lord?”
Notes principle of the Old Testament “representing God by the figurative attribution of the human form.” He sees this as “figurative language” that is “bringing down divine things to the grasp of man.” To try to take these literally is to create an unnecessary conflict with “the plain declarations of the sacred word, upon the spirituality, the omniscience, the unchangeableness of the One Living and True God”
Applying similar logic to “natural phenomena,” Smith notes that “the immobility of the earth was strenuously maintained” for a time as “the general belief of all denominations of Christians,” quoting a “John Henr. Heideggen” attacking the Copernican view: “some celebrated philosophers have endeavoured to reconcile it to the Bible, by considerations drawn from the ambiguity and various use of language… But our pious reverence for the Scripture, the word of truth, will not allow us to depart from the strict propriety of the words.”
By contrast, Smith argues that the Scripture’s condescended style is “that which alone would have been intelligible in the early ages of the world ; but it is still the best adapted for universal use.”
Says Genesis 1:1 speaks of a creation “not from preexistent materials… But when that beginning was, when that act was put forth, it was not the design of revelation to inform us.”
Says the “heavens and earth” of Exodus 20:11 only refers to “All that the Israelites could understand” by it, and argues for a “local” interpretation of the creation story as only applying specifically to “the part of our world which God was adapting for the dwelling of man and the animals connected with him.”
Regarding animal death before the Fall, Smith argues that “Be fruitful, and multiply” implies the “departure of precedent individuals.” He argues that “the threatening of death…‘seems very clearly to imply, that the subjects of this law had a knowledge of what death was”. He argues that even if all animals were “herbivorous,” their feeding would “kill by myriads” the insects and minute creatures that live on plants. Also claims “the anatomical structure of the larger part of animal species presents demonstration that they were created to live upon animal food,” although “a few species indeed are omnivorous ; and this circumstance has misled some persons.” Suggests that “predictions of the peace and happiness of the Messiah’s reign… must be understood… as beautiful poetry.” Argues that passages about death in Romans and 1 Corinthians refer only to humans.
On the Deluge, he argues “that universal terms are often used to signify only a very large amount in number or quantity,” example of Joseph’s famine, also “All the cattle of Egypt died,” yet “in subsequent parts of the same chapter, the cattle of the king and people of Egypt are mentioned,” and many other similar examples, notes “Our Lord himself condescended to use the style of the Jews,” describing the queen of Sheba as coming “from the uttermost parts of the earth.” In conclusion: “I humbly think that those terms do not oblige us to understand a literal universality; so that we are exonerated from some otherwise insuperable difficulties in Natural History and Geology.*
Argues against “calculations” for a huge population of humans at the Deluge, due partially to “the effect of moral depravity in diminishing the fecundity of the human species.” Suggests that “an elevation of the bed of the Persian and Indian Seas” could cause a regional Flood. Quotes Bishop Stillingfleet, “who wrote without the least knowledge of geological arguments,” that “The Flood was universal as to mankind : but from thence follows no necessity at all of asserting the universality of it as to the globe of the earth.”
Conclusion on his efforts to reconcile Scripture and Natural History:
“I have not attempted to do this by affirming that the Scriptures teach the sciences ; or that their language can be forced, by any grammatical or critical ingenuity, into a literal accordance with scientific truths : but by adducing abundant evidence to shew that the Author of revelation spoke to mankind in such language as they were accustomed to use, such as they could most readily understand, and such as must ever remain the most affecting and impressive to the human heart.”
Lecture 8.Summary: In closing remarks, Smith encourages his young listeners to study the sciences, and particularly Geology, as part of the Biblical call of “applying the heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom and the reason of things.” He remarks on the need to defend “correct interpretation” of the Bible against atheistic “infidels,” and entreats such scientists and philosophers, who have discovered so much about the earth, to turn their attention to the Infinite God.
“Your penetration into the vastness of space and time, has made you familiar with the sublimest ideas in nature. Those ideas have brought you into a contact, incomparably closer than that of ordinary men, with the eternal and the infinite. Is it then possible, that you do not meditate on eternity and infinity, as subjects in which you have the highest interest?
Smith intreats that
“you would effectually resolve to yield to religion its rightful place in your minds and your hearts : that you would give the just proportion of your studies to the facts and evidences of Christianity, its doctrines and duties, its promises, its invitations, and its faithful warnings. ” Glory to God in the highest ; on earth, peace ; among men, good will ! “
Supplemental Notes. A series of additional remarks, including the theology of animal death before the Fall and geological evidence for long ages.
“A system of nature, according to which organized creatures should not die, would be totally incompatible with the plan which the Creator has been pleased to establish.”
Of carnivorous animals: “Their bones and muscles, their teeth, claws, stomachs, and intestines, demonstrate that they were created to be nourished solely by animal food.”
“what is the just interpretation of Rom. v. 12. ” By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin.” We reply that it refers to the access and dominion of death over man…” Without sin, “our first parents” would have been “translated” into “a higher condition” without “dying,” but they “forfeited” this “glorious prospect” and “sunk down into the condition of the inferior animals.”
He compares geological stratum to 30 or 40 volumes of books, many of which each have thin layers like pages, and discusses their general organization and characteristics, which “prove that the whole series of deposits has occupied untold ages.”
“Do not suppose that a satisfactory knowledge of Geology can be obtained in a short time, or by skimming over a book or two… Go into the field of actual search and observation”
Note C refers to a Baobab tree claimed to be older than the presumed date of Noah’s flood. Describes Mr. Rhind’s attempt to argue for “annular circles” that are “irregular” or “that some species may produce more than one woody circle in a year.” Smith exclaims, “I must respectfully suppose that Physiological Botany has not been one of the author’s studies.”
Note D responds to “Dr. Young’s Scriptural Geology,” arguing that he cherry-picks examples of flooded fossils to generalize all fossils from the deluge while ignoring fossils with opposite characteristics. “If the worthy author could make so much of his seam of disparted oyster-shells, washed over a small piece of land, what ought he not to have concluded from the case of the opposite character, and covering an area a thousand times more extensive?”
From Note E:
“Can any man imagine that granite was created in its characteristic state, a composition of visibly and palpably distinct materials, scarcely mixed, only put loosely together ? It would be almost as reasonable to affirm that the stomachs of the first animals were created with bitten and masticated fragments of the appropriate food in them.—”…”But this unutterable period ! — Compared with the infinite existence, with the eternity of GOD, it sinks to a moment.”
And a final quote which serves as a fitting conclusion to this summary of Smith’s work:
“This sketch, hasty and imperfect as it is, demonstrates a series of changes in organic nature, adapted to the variations in temperature, atmospheric constitution, and mineral composition, which, upon independent grounds, we have reason to believe did take place. The perfections of the Creator are conspicuous in all this wondrous course of change. We see unity of purpose, harmony of means and adaptations, and infinite variety in modes of development. ” O Lord, how manifold are thy works ! In wisdom hast thou made them all. The earth is full of thy riches : so is this great and wide sea.” (Ps. civ. 24.)