Interrogative Imperative Institute

What do you know about evolutionary theory? Or, maybe there are two questions here: what do you think you know, and what do you actually know?


In reality, if people are honest about the matter -- and quite irrespective of whether they believe in evolution or they are opposed to it -- most individuals probably would have to acknowledge that they know almost nothing at all about the actual nuts and bolts of the technical issues at the heart of evolutionary theory. Their belief concerning this matter -- whatever the character of that belief may be -- is, for the most part, rooted in two sources: (a) a largely unexamined acceptance of the opinion of others; (b) the extent to which evolutionary theory makes carrying on with the rest of their philosophical or religious perspective either easier or more difficult to continue to do.

In addition, the controversy surrounding evolutionary theory with respect to origin of life issues has been plagued by the fact that many of the advocates for various sides of this issue have been conducting the discussion on the wrong level. More specifically, people have been arguing mostly in terms of the evidence entailed by paleobiology ... that is, the anatomic/fossilized data which has been drawn from zoological and botanical studies. Unfortunately, the origin of life issue cannot be settled, one way or the other with any degree of certitude, when approached in this manner.

On the aforementioned level of discussion, one, at best, can obtain data which is either consistent with, or raises problems in, evolutionary theory as an explanation for the origin of life. However, there is no smoking gun (either for or against) to be found in such material -- just self-serving and heated rhetoric that tends to be cast in the garments of apparent rigor.

Furthermore, contrary to what many people believe, with the exception of a brief allusion to the possibilities that might exist in a 'warm little pond' somewhere ... a pond with just the right set of magical conditions ... Darwin has virtually nothing to say about the origin of life issue. The entire argument in his universally known but largely unread book is not about the origin of life but about the plausibility of a form of argument which alludes to, and presupposes, such a possibility without ever spelling out the mechanism.

The first part of the title of Darwin's historic work is: 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection'. There is a potential problem inherent in this title because the words tend to suggest that a species comes into being by a mechanism known as "natural selection". However, natural selection gives expression to a set of forces that operates after-the-fact of something having originated, and, therefore, at best, natural selection does not so much generate a species as much as natural selection operates on such a species once the latter has originated.

Natural selection acts on what is. It presupposes what is.

Natural selection does not cause what is, but, rather, it is an expression of those aspects of what is that may help determine which features of what is might continue to be. Natural selection introduces nothing new into the evolutionary picture, but, rather, the idea of natural selection only says something about the facets of that picture which might be most consonant with the dynamic of interacting natural forces existing at a given time and in a given location.

Therefore, the cause of that (whether a prebiotic collection of organic molecules or some primitive form of protocell) which natural selection comes to act upon still stands in need of an explanation. One cannot use natural selection as an explanation for that which natural explanation clearly presupposes without becoming entangled in completely circular thinking, and this sort of jaunt around the conceptual barn does not constitute an explanation of any kind.

Another problem with the previously noted title of Darwin's book is that it gives the impression that something is being selected ... as a person might make a selection among an array of choices. In truth, nothing is being selected since what exists in the way of a set of organic chemicals, or a set of protocells, or a set of species is either compatible (across a range of being more, or less, compatible) with the existing conditions of nature, or such chemicals, protocells, or species are not compatible. If random, such natural events do not select or choose.

What is compatible with the prevailing forces and conditions survives. What is not so compatible tends not to survive. Nothing has been selected.

Another key idea in Darwinian Theory is the notion of 'the accumulation of small variations'. The idea of the accumulation of small variations does not really account for either the origin of life, in general, or for the origin of different, particular biological blueprints, so to speak, on which the notion of species difference is based. Variation presupposes that which is capable of such variation. Consequently what needs to be explained is the origin of the capacity for variation.

Genetics is not the science which provides an account of the story of the origin of that capacity. Rather, genetics is merely a science which delineates how such a capacity operates once it has arisen.

Neither the ideas of natural selection nor variation help explain the origin of life. Only with the advent of modern molecular and cellular biology have we finally come into contact with the sort of information that allows one to make insightful judgments about the plausibility of evolutionary theory as an adequate account for the origins of life on Earth. When one integrates the disciplines of molecular and cellular biology with data derived from geology, hydrology, meteorology, and cosmology -- along with what has been learned about organic and inorganic chemistry -- then, one is in a position to work toward an informed understanding concerning the questions which surround and permeate the possibility of whether the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution offers an acceptable paradigm with which to approach origin of life issues.

Evolution and the Origin of Life

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Evolution and the Origin of Life

Opening Remarks

Upon arrival in Chicago, I took one of the shuttle buses from the airport that made the rounds of different hotels in the downtown area. After getting off the bus at my destination, the Balmer House, I confirmed my reservation at the main desk, picked up my key card and proceeded to the assigned room on the twenty-first floor.

I spent about ten or fifteen minutes in the room unpacking. Once this task had been completed, I went downstairs in search of the symposium registration desk.

After the signing in requirements had been met, I picked up a brochure which listed the various lectures, panels, discussions and so on that had been scheduled for the symposium. I quickly perused the day's listings.

The only event which struck my fancy was a moot court session on evolutionary theory to be held on the fourth floor, beginning at 3:00 p.m., about twenty minutes from now. I decided to go and see what it was like.

I fully expected the worst. At the same time, I held out a certain amount of hope that there might be some degree of entertaining diversion to be derived from the trial.

The whole thing would be very trying, indeed, if the participants took themselves too seriously and lacked a sense of humor. Equally daunting was the prospect that few, if any, of the individuals taking part in the moot court might know anything about modern evolutionary theory.

Images of Spencer Tracy and Frederick March came to mind from 'Inherit the Wind'. There had been a remake of the movie in which Jason Robards played a Clarence Darrow-like character to Kirk Douglas's version of William Jennings Bryan.

I had enjoyed both movies but always felt the cards had been stacked rather unfairly in the debate. The crux of the drama had not really focused on evolutionary theory per se but on a clever lawyer's dismantling of a simplistic presentation of a narrowly conceived religious position held by a somewhat flawed personality. Hopefully, the moot court session was not going to repeat the same mistake, except in reverse -- that is, to use a clever lawyer's debating tactics to defeat a simplistic presentation of evolutionary theory.

If done properly, the trial setting could provide a valuable opportunity for a good educational experience. I preferred not to think about what the result would be if things were done improperly.

I eventually found my way to the indicated room. When I walked through the doors, two things surprised me.

For some reason, I was expecting a relatively small venue ... perhaps from having seen too much of the stage settings for the old, pre-revival, Perry Mason television series. The room selected for the trial was quite large and had been set up like an actual court complete with a jury box, witness stand, lawyers' tables, a raised desk-like affair for the presiding magistrate, and a large area at the back of the court room for the audience.

The other feature which I found interesting was the size of the crowd. Nearly every seat was taken. I was lucky to find a vacant chair.

The members of the jury already were assembled in their seats. Those who were acting as lawyers were at their respective tables.

A door to the left and behind the judge's bench opened, and a diminutive, attractive, forty-something, black-robed, brown haired woman entered the hall. As she did, a court officer stood up and said: "Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All rise, Moot Court is now in session, the Honorable Justice Karen Arnsberger presiding over the matter of the people versus Wayne Robert Corrigan in the City of Chicago, in, and for, the County of Cook, on June 26, in the year of our Lord, 2009. Draw nigh, and ye shall be heard."

The court officer watched the judge settle into her chair. When he was satisfied, the man announced: "Please be seated."

As the Judge waited for the noise of the audience's seating dynamics to subside, she shuffled and re-arranged some of the papers before her. When relative quiet had returned to the room, she scanned the court and, then, said: "In accordance with agreements reached in chambers between the prosecution and defense concerning pre-trial motions filed on various aspects of the procedural format to be observed during the course of this trial, the following principles will be in effect:

"(1) Due to considerations of time, the prosecution and defense each will be entitled, if so desired, to call a maximum of two witnesses;

"(2)with the exception of certain provisions -- provisions which have been agreed to by all parties concerned -- standard rules of evidence will be in effect throughout these proceedings;

"(3)prospective jurors has been polled by both the defense and prosecution prior to the start of this moot court session and jurors have been selected and impaneled on the basis of their perceived capacity to judge the matter before the court in a fair and impartial manner. During the selection process, both sides were given the right to challenge seven of the candidates without the need to show cause for dismissal;

"(4)again, out of consideration for the time constraints under which we are operating, neither the defense nor the prosecution will be permitted the opportunity for redirect examination;

"(5) the decision of the jury shall be read in open session on the last day of the symposium."

Putting the paper down from which she had been reading, she addressed each of the lawyers: "Are these the conditions to which you have agreed?

Both responded, almost simultaneously, but slightly out of synchronization: "So stipulated, Your Honor."

"Very well," she replied.

She shuffled through a few more papers and stopped when she found the desired document. "Mr. Corrigan, will you please stand."

After the defendant -- a curly-haired, freckled youngster who looked to be in his mid-twenties -- had arisen, Judge Arnsberger said: "Wayne Robert Corrigan, you are being accused of teaching students material which is in direct conflict with the facts of evolution as well as with the principles and methods of science. How do you plead?"

"Not guilty, Your Honor," came the response.

"All right, Mr. Corrigan, you may sit down," she indicated. Turning to the lawyer for the prosecution, she asked: "Are the people ready to proceed, Mr. Mayfield?'

"The people are prepared, Your Honor," he informed her. Looking in the direction of the table for the defense, she asked: "Is the defense ready to proceed, Mr. Tappin?"

"We are, Your Honor," he stated.

"Good," she asserted, "then, let us proceed with opening statements. Mr. Mayfield, you are up first, and, gentlemen, please remember the meter is ticking."

Pushing his chair back as he arose, the lawyer for the prosecution -- who looked, sounded, and acted like he came from a family of moneyed- gentry ... walked to a point in front of the jury box, about midway between the two ends. He placed his hands momentarily on the railing atop the three-foot partition which enclosed the jury area and briefly made eye contact with various jurors as he looked first to his right and then to his left, as he surveyed the members of the jury.

Removing his hands from the railing, he began to address the jury as he slowly walked back and forth along the front length of the boxed area. Every so often, he would stop and face the jurors in front of him and speak as if he were talking just to them.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, some seventy-five years ago, a man by the name of John Scopes was placed on trial for teaching evolution to his students. He was accused of promulgating theories and ideas which ran contrary to established religious doctrines concerning the origins of human beings.

"Today, you are being asked to pass judgment on a case which, in many ways, is quite similar to the Scopes case, but with a major difference. The defendant, Mr. Corrigan, has been accused of teaching material which is contrary to the facts of evolution and in opposition to established principles, practices and methods of science.

"Personally, I find it very disheartening that just as we begin our journey into a new millennium, and some hundred and forty -plus years after the publication of Charles Darwin's classic study: 'The Origin of Species by Natural Selection', we find ourselves unable, apparently, to put this matter behind us. I consider this situation to be unsatisfactory because for nearly one hundred and forty years, there has been an exponential growth of data from many different fields of scientific endeavor, all of which points in one direction -- namely, that evolutionary theory has been demonstrated to be a valid, consistent, empirically grounded, rigorously examined and scientifically satisfying account of the origins not only of species but of life itself.

"To be sure, as is true in any area of scientific research, there are differences of opinion concerning the value and use of various kinds of methods, techniques, and interpretations in evolutionary theory. However, none of these differences has anything to do with bringing into fundamental question, nor are they capable of undermining or refuting, the shared understanding and agreement of scientists concerning the essential character of evolution.

"At the heart of evolutionary theory is one simple truth. The origin-of-life, the origin of species, the transition from one species to another, -- these all are completely explicable in terms of known natural principles and processes.

"In other words, the principles of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology, meteorology, and climatology, when combined with a few simple ideas such as natural selection and variation, provide a definitive, exacting and sufficient framework through which to understand the origins of life along with the biological phenomena which such origins set in motion. In short, the dynamic interaction that results from the interfacing of the forces operating through these various principles and processes is all that is necessary to be able to provide an adequate account of why certain phenomena and forms, rather than other phenomena and forms, were selected to play crucial roles in the emergence and perpetuation of different life forms.

"To employ principles and forces beyond the natural realm is to violate what is known as Ockham's razor. This long venerated tenet of scientific methodology advises us not to multiply assumptions or concepts beyond what is needed to adequately account for any given phenomenon.

"Translated into more modern language, Ockham's razor is really the law of parsimony.

"Keep things simple. Do not complicate matters unnecessarily.

"Evolutionary theory operates entirely within the purview of this law of parsimony. Indeed, as far as the issues surrounding the origins of life are concerned, evolutionary theory is the only account which operates in accordance with this fundamental principle of rigorous methodology.

"The Scopes trial was caught up in emotion, dogma, and cultural biases. These influences settled like a dense fog around the minds and hearts of the jury and made reaching a fair and impartial verdict on the issues of that case very difficult.

"As a result, John Scopes lost the case. He lost the case despite the fact that the overwhelming character of the trial evidence revealed through testimony as well as cross-examination demonstrated that the charges against the defendant were entirely without merit.

"You, the members of the jury, have been selected because of your stated willingness to rise above issues of emotion, dogma and cultural bias. You have been selected because of your commitment to render a free and impartial judgment in the matter before us based solely on considerations of facts, logic and reasonableness of deliberations.

"The prosecution intends to demonstrate, within the limits being imposed on this trial, that evolutionary theory has been established beyond any reasonable doubt. Consequently, anyone, in this day and age, who would teach material that stands in opposition to a theoretical framework which has been developed and agreed upon during the last one hundred and forty-plus years can only do so by denying the facts of the matter and by refusing to observe sound scientific practice and principles.

"This is precisely the violation of which Mr. Corrigan is being accused. If the prosecution is successful in the presentation of our case, as I believe we will be, then you, the women and men of this jury, will, beyond any reasonable doubt, find Mr. Corrigan guilty as charged."

Once again, the prosecutor briefly ran his eyes down the two rows of impaneled jurors, stopping here and there to engage the eyes of this or that juror. When he had finished, he said:

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I want to thank you for the careful attention which you have given to my opening remarks. I am confident you will give the same considered attention to the evidence governing the case before you."

Mr. Mayfield turned and went back to his table. As he sat down, one of his assistants whispered something in his ear.

Judge Arnsberger turned to the lawyer for the defense. "Surf's up, Mr. Tappin," she informed him.

Before getting up, he picked up one of the sheets from the table top, looked at it for a few seconds, and, then, put the paper back down. He continued to sit for another five or ten seconds, as if in thought, and, finally, quickly rose and made his way to the jury area.

In speech and manner, Mr. Tappin appeared to be the opposite of Mr. Mayfield. With the exception of his thinking processes, everything about the defense lawyer was casual, informal and laid back.

Like the lawyer for the prosecution, Mr. Tappin appeared to be in his early thirties. Like Mr. Mayfield, the defense lawyer was moderately handsome but in a rough and ready manner and, therefore, somewhat at odds with the prosecution lawyer's aura of urbane sophistication.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of the jury," the defense lawyer began.

"Good afternoon" was the collective, somewhat mumbled response from the jurors.

"I would like to thank my learned adversary for the wisdom of his comments," Mr. Tappin stated. "With his well -known and respected capacity for conciseness, Mr. Mayfield's introductory statement has focused on the most important elements of this case.

"The legal matter before you is not about ... or at least, it should not be about ... emotion, dogma and cultural biases. On the other hand, this case is about facts, logic and reasonable deliberations.

"These proceedings will not be about evolutionary science versus what some adversaries of evolution refer to as 'creation science'. This is so because my client is not an advocate of creation science, nor is this what he teaches in his classroom.

"My client, Mr. Corrigan, does not find any philosophical, or even religious, inconsistency between the vast majority of the tenets of evolutionary biology and a belief in a Divine Being Who creates the material and physical world. Mr. Corrigan is willing to admit the plausibility, if not tenability, of a position which says that evolution is merely the manifest form of the means through which God creates physical/material reality.

"The nature of Mr. Corrigan's faith is not so feeble that it depends on presupposing a particular conception of creation which precludes the possibility of evolution. He doesn't have a vested interest or axe to grind in this respect.

"Mr. Corrigan's concerns lay elsewhere. He is worried about issues such as truth, proof, logical argument, understanding, explanation, interpretation, and the integrity of the exploratory process.

"The case of the defense will not be about whether the second law of thermodynamics is inconsistent with the theory of evolution. We are quite prepared to live with the entirety of thermodynamic theory, including the relatively recent work on the phenomenon of dissipative structures which, sometimes, arise under conditions in which a system is far from equilibrium.

"The defense will not involve any arguments about whether the fossil record does, or does not, create problems for evolutionary theory. In addition, we will not try to exploit the controversies surrounding punctuated equilibrium theories as a means of undermining the framework of evolutionary biology.

"The position of the defense does not depend on the raising of questions about the reliability of dating methods based on radioisotopes. Furthermore, we have no intention of trying to use to our advantage differences of opinion concerning the role which, say, lunar samples play in pinning down the time of events on Earth, or the way in which, for example, high temperatures can affect the significance and interpretation of Carbon12 and Carbon13 ratios as an indirect procedure for helping to establish the possible presence of life at a given period of time in the early history of the Earth.

"There will be no attempt by the defense to take quotes of noted evolutionary scientists out of context and try to use these quotes as evidence against evolutionary theory. We are only interested in taking a look at what the best science of our day has to say in support of the case for evolutionary theory with respect to origin of life issues.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, so far, I have told you what the case for the defense will not be. I have not, yet, indicated what our case will be, so let me take this opportunity to rectify that omission.

"The contention of the defense is as follows. When closely examined, evolutionary theories concerning the origins of life consist of little more than a rather argumentative mixture of: questionable assumptions, speculative conjectures, problematic inferences, arbitrary interpolations or extrapolations, ambiguous evidence, and a wonderfully serendipitous confluence of events quite beyond the ability of science to demonstrate with any degree of plausibility except, perhaps, to the true believers among evolutionary theorists who are more in need of faith to prop up their theories concerning the origins of life than are many followers of religious traditions.

"The defense will be asking you, the members of the jury, not to be dazzled by the technical virtuosity of modern science. We will be asking you not to be intimidated by the use of technical terms.

"However, the defense will be asking you to keep in mind the importance of such basic, fundamental questions as: How? Where? When? What? and Why? In addition, the defense will be asking you not to shunt aside or marginalize the number of questions which go unanswered within the evolutionary perspective.

"The defense believes that if the members of jury are prepared to persist in asking simple questions along the lines we have indicated, and if you are willing to keep a running total of the questions which, after all is said and done, lack a satisfactory answer, you will arrive at one conclusion beyond any reasonable doubt. This conclusion is that my client, Wayne Corrigan, is not guilty of teaching material in conflict with either the facts of the matter at hand or with the methodological tenets and principles of scientific investigation.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to thank you for your kind attention to my opening statement. I also would like to leave you with one suggestion.

"Pause for a few seconds, sit back, relax and take a few deep breaths. For, in approximately ten to twenty seconds, you may not get the opportunity to do so again until these proceedings have concluded.

"Thank you, again," Mr. Tappin stated and returned to his seat. A few jurors seemed to be following his suggestion.

Approximately fifteen seconds later, Judge Arnsberger announced: "The prosecution may call its first witness."

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Evolution and the Origin of Life, please go to:

Evolution and the Origin of Life

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