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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, May 9, 2019

12+ Belief Options Regarding the Origin of Species

Imagine a realtor shows you an apartment for rent. The rent is way too high, and the apartment has a leaky roof, and lots of roaches running about. As you leave the apartment with the realtor, the realtor tries to get you to rent the apartment by saying, “Look, you may not like it, but you have a choice: either rent it, or get used to sleeping out on the cold street.” Such an argument commits the fallacy of a false dilemma, in which someone speaks as if there are only two choices, even though there are a variety of choices. Of course, a renter will almost always have a choice of several different apartments he can rent.

A similar false dilemma is very frequently presented by Darwinists who speak as if we have a choice in believing in orthodox Darwinism or believing in biblical creationism, the idea that all of the earth's species were created only a few thousand years ago. The range of choices is not at all so narrow. Instead of having just two choices in regard to what we can believe about the origin of species, you actually have quite a few belief options you can choose from. In this post I will describe thirteen such choices.

Background: The Fossil Record

The fossil record presents certain constraints on any theory of the origin of species that follows the principle of, “Let's believe the past was as it appears to have been.” But as we will see this constraint is not absolute, because under certain imaginative theories such a principle might actually be dispensed with.

A Darwinist will inevitably describe the fossil record as showing evidence of gradual evolution. But described in the most lean and objective way, that is not necessarily so. What the fossil record does seem to show is very strong evidence that species have  appeared at scattered times during the past 600 million years.

The animal kingdom contains about 36 major divisions called phyla. Contrary to what we might expect under Darwinian assumptions, we do not see most of these phyla appearing during the past 200 million years, in some kind of “cone of increasing diversity.” Instead, most of the animal phyla appear between 600 and 500 million years ago, with no animal phylum appearing after  about 500 million years ago. 

Option #1: Darwinism

There are three tenets of orthodox Darwinism. The first is the belief that all life has descended from a common primitive ancestor. The second is gradualism, the idea that species arise because one species slowly evolves into another species. The third tenet of Darwinism is the idea that new species appear mainly because of random changes or random mutations and natural selection.

There are problems with Darwinism. The first is that we have no direct observational evidence that any of its three main ideas is correct. While we have evidence that species appeared at different intervals during the past 600 million years, this does not prove that such species evolved from earlier ancestors. Such species might have been dropped off by visiting spaceships, or created by some divine creator (to mention two of quite a few possibilities I will discuss). While there is evidence that natural selection can produce microevolution (typically a kind of pruning effect getting rid of unfit members of a population), there is no good evidence that an accumulation of small changes produced by natural selection will result in a new species or a macroscopic biological innovation. What we see in organisms is gigantic amounts of organization, but natural selection is not actually a theory of organization; it's merely a theory of accumulation (that being the word that Darwin used again and again in describing his theory).

A very large objection against the idea of evolution by natural selection is that it cannot explain the early stages (or incipient stages) of any new biological organ, biological system, or biological innovation. Such early stages would almost always fail to produce any reward, so we would not expect that natural selection would cause them to proliferate because of “survival of the fittest.” An additional problem is that Darwinism offers no answer to the origin of life itself, something that cannot be explained by natural selection (which requires life to first exist). 

Option #2: “Third Way” Naturalistic Gradualism

The term “third way” has sometimes been used for the idea that species appear through blind gradual evolution, but that this does not occur mainly because of natural selection. A person following this approach may believe that gradual evolution requires some much more complicated explanation than the simplistic explanation of random mutations and natural selection. The person may appeal to some imagined natural principle of self-organization. Or the person may appeal to ideas such as DNA methlyzation, gene swapping, or epigenetics. There is a web site listing various scientists who take such an approach. You could put under this category a theory such as the neutral theory of evolution.  

Option #3: Biblical Creationism

Biblical creationism is the idea that species appeared all at once, after being created by a divine creator, as described by the Bible. When combined with fundamentalism, biblical creationism typically holds that all species are no older than a few thousand years. The principle problem with this option is that it conflicts with the fossil record, which suggests that species have appeared over a span of many millions of years.

I may note that it is an error to use the term "creationist" to refer to anyone who has not stated that he believes in the biblical account of creation,  because when you do a Google search for "creationism" the first definition you will get is one that specifically refers to the biblical account of creation.  This error of calling critics of Darwinism "creationists" is very often used in a dishonest way by Darwinism zealots, who will call any critic of Darwinism a creationist even when such a person has not identified himself as a believer in the biblical view of creation. Such critics are properly referred to as "Darwinism skeptics." 

Option #4: Intelligent Design

Intelligent design may be very generally described as the idea that species have appeared after design activity from some intelligent designer. The term is actually a broad umbrella that covers quite a few diverse possibilities. A person believing in intelligent design may or may not believe that the earth's species are descended from a common ancestor, and may or may not believe in gradualism, the idea that one species gradually evolves into another. Typically a person believing in intelligent design will believe that some divine agent is the intelligent designer, although some believers in intelligent design say that the nature of the designer cannot be known (perhaps leaving the door open to some extraterrestrial agent as the intelligent designer).

Option #5: Origin of Species by Extraterrestrial Actions

The term panspermia is used for a theory that life originated on Earth after it came here from space, possibly by comets. The term directed panspermia is sometimes used for the idea that life originated on Earth after some spaceship came here and dropped off microorganisms. There is no reason why speculations about extraterrestrial involvement in earthly biology be confined to the origin of life. We can take things further, and speculate that all, most or some species now existing have originated because of extraterrestrial actions. The appearances of species we see in the fossil record could have been mostly caused by extraterrestrial spaceships that dropped off biological organisms on our planet. Or perhaps only some of the most hard-to-explain species have originated after extraterrestrial intervention, including our own species.

This Option #5 has often been suggested by the popular television show Ancient Aliens, which often suggests that the seemingly sudden appearance of human culture may have been the result of tinkering by extraterrestrials.

It's not just a theory, it's a TV series

The advantage of believing in Option 5 is that it can reduce some of the huge improbability problems associated with Darwinism. There are reasons for thinking that the chance of a species such as mankind ever appearing because of random Darwinian evolution is less than 1 in a billion. But let us imagine 100 billion habitable planets in our galaxy. The chance of an intelligent species on at least one of those planets might have been much better than 1 in a billion. And then such an intelligent life form might have caused intelligent life to appear on our planet. Under such a theory, the implausible improbability may be reduced substantially.

Option #6: Teleological Gradualism

The term gradualism refers to the idea that biological species have gradually evolved from other species. One can believe in such an idea without believing that natural selection or random mutations are sufficient to explain why one species would evolve into another species. An alternate idea is that there is some kind of cosmic impetus or life-force that drives species towards higher levels of organization and complexity. We might think of this in a rather mystical or vitalistic sense. Or we might think of such a thing as being a kind of cosmic programming.

It is interesting to note that a divine agent would not necessarily cause species to come into existence through some special intervention. Such an agent might create subtle laws and cosmic algorithms that might cause life to appear and start becoming more and more organized across the universe. Much of this “cosmic programming” might be undiscovered by us.

One can believe in such a thing while also maintaining that natural selection is utterly inadequate to explain biological complexity.

Option #7: Origins Agnosticism

The term agnosticism refers to taking no position on whether or not a deity exists. The term “origins agnosticism” can be used for the stance of taking no position as to how biological species arose. An origins agnostic does not maintain that species arose because of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, does not maintain that species through any gradual process of evolution, does not maintain that species arose because of some special creation, and does not maintain that species arose because of some form of intelligent design. The origins agnostic simply answers, “I don't understand such matters,” or “No one understands such matters” when asked about such topics.

Given the limits of human knowledge and understanding, a strong case can be made that origins agnosticism is actually the most scientific stance that can currently be taken on the issue of the origin of species.

Option #8: Philosophical Immaterialism

Most people take the fossil record and the geological record as something that force us without any flexibility to believe that the physical universe existed for billions of years before man appeared on the scene. But under certain philosophical assumptions, such a thing is not necessarily so.

One interesting philosophical theory, surprisingly easy to defend, is known as idealism or immaterialism. This is the idea that all that exists are minds or mental experiences, and that matter exists only as something within the perceptions of mental agents, having no reality outside of the perceptions or experiences of minds. Under  such a theory, what is called the first four billion years of earth's history undergoes a kind of demotion, becoming something that exists purely as a perceptual detail or conceptual detail. An immaterialist may believe that the history of planet Earth really started when the first humans existed, and first had mental experiences.

To help get a handle on such an idea, consider a newly created video game. The initial level of play may involve acting as Detective Waterson in the detective's living room, with the calendar listing January 1, 1890 as the date. Inside that living room may be a scrapbook showing events from Detective's Waterson's childhood, going back to 1860. But that scrapbook is just kind of what screenwriters call “back story.” The game doesn't really begin in 1860 – it begins in 1890, with the first day of the player's experience playing Detective Waterson. Similarly, what we call the Jurassic Era and the Triassic Era may be mere “back story.” The history of earth – which actually may be just a history of mental experiences – may have begun only when the first mental experiences occurred.  Under such a theory, it may be denied that there ever really existed creatures such as dinosaurs, which may be merely part of a narrative “back story,” and which may be called never-existent because no real mind ever perceived them.

Under such a doctrine of immaterialism, we may need to postulate some non-human mental reality as being the source of human mental reality. Under an immaterialist perspective, all attempts to postulate physical or biological causes for the origin of humanity are mistaken. The thinking goes along the lines of: we are purely mental, and the cause of us must also be purely mental.

Option #9: The Idea Our Planet Is a Technological Simulation

The idea has been widely discussed that we may be part of a computer simulation created by extraterrestrials. Under such a theory, we remove biological evolution as the cause of humanity, and replace such an idea with the idea that extraterrestrial programmers are the cause of humanity.

This idea has many difficulties. One is that it kind of pushes off into the far horizon the question of how minds could ever originally appear. If we are the result of extraterrestrial programming, then any evidence claimed for evolution disappears, becoming just “part of the illusion” or “part of the simulation.” So we are then left with the question: how could these extraterrestrials that programmed our simulation ever have appeared? You can't cite evolution if your assumption has made earthly evolution just “part of the simulation."

Option #10: Hyper-Dimensional Migration of Species

Modern science fiction often talks about space-time wormholes, allowing an instantaneous passage from one part of space to another part of space. Such a concept is higher speculative. Engaging in similar speculations, we may postulate that reality may consist of numerous different dimensions or universes, and there may be portals or wormholes that allow transit from one dimension or universe to another.

Such a possibility may suggest a strange theory about the origin of species. The theory is that many, most or all species have originated in some other universe or other dimension, and have somehow migrated to our planet, after some organisms passed through some wormhole or portal. There might be some reason why such a wormhole or portal might open up very rarely, perhaps only once every few million years.

A disadvantage of such a theory is that it kind of pushes off to the horizon the ultimate reason as to why species originated, since no explanation is provided as to how they might have originated in some other dimension or other universe.

Option #11: Cosmic Learning

A problem with Darwinism is that it asks us to believe in occurrences that seem all-too-unlikely to have occurred given only the non-creative and non-organizational factors of natural selection and random mutations. But let us imagine something that might increase the chance of natural evolution. We can imagine that the universe somehow has a mysterious ability to learn and remember when incredibly improbable fortunate things happen. So imagine billions of galaxies each containing billions of planets. There might be only 1 chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 that a particular biological innovation would anywhere in the universe. But once that biological innovation had occurred, this might somehow be like some trick that the whole universe had learned. The odds of such an event might then suddenly decrease, going from 1 chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to something like 1 chance in 100. Then we might suddenly see that biological innovation occurring with great ease all over the universe.

I have no idea of how such “cosmic learning” might work, but conceivably some theorist might flesh out this vague suggestion. One possibility might be to imagine that the universe itself has a kind of mind, to some degree.

Option 12: Biological Innovations from Unknown Previous Earthly Civilizations

An interesting rarely considered possibility is that our civilization may not be the first high-technology civilization to arise on our planet. It could be that many millions of years ago some technical civilization arose on our planet. Almost all traces of such a civilization could have been lost because of geological activity. If an earlier civilization had existed on Earth, it might have engaged in genetic engineering, creating new forms of life. Some of the species that now exist may have been created by such a civilization.

Option 13: The Origin of Species by Less-Than-Divine Spiritual Entities

Yet another possibility is that one or more species (possibly mankind) were created not by the creator of the universe, but by some poorly understood spiritual entities of lesser power.  Possibilities include angels, demons or any other hypothetical spiritual entities such as mysterious disembodied spirits.  Appealing to such a possibility may have the advantage that it defeats all arguments along the lines that an omnipotent power would not have created creatures so flawed as humans are.  If humans were created by less-than-divine spiritual entities, we can draw no conclusions about whether the creations of such entities would be perfect.  

Conclusion

We have seen that there are many possible belief options regarding the origin of species. I have listed thirteen, and some more imaginative thinker could probably add five or ten more.

There is another factor to consider, which expands the possibility set further.  This is the fact that few of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.  It is possible that multiple causal factors were involved in the origin of species, and that some species appeared for one reason, and other species appeared for others. For example,  it could be that all earthly species arose for some particular reason, and that humanity (with so many unique characteristics) arose because of some very different reason.  When we consider the possibility that species may appear because of a combination of two or more of the 13 items I have listed here, then the total set of belief possibilities would seem to be in excess of 25. 

Postscript: A Yale professor of computer science has written this recent essay arguing against Darwinist explanations of the origin of species. His two main points are the failure of Darwinism to explain the dramatic burst of biological innovation in the Cambrian Explosion (in which most animal phyla originated), and the failure of Darwinism as an explanation for fine-tuned proteins incredibly unlikely to originate through random mutations and natural selection. 

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