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Evolutionary Gems from Nature

The scientific evidence for the fact of evolution is overwhelming. Stephen J. Gould, reflecting the attitude that nothing in science is certain and that all conclusions are tentative, characterized the evidence for evolution as “affirmed to such a high degree that it would be perverse to withhold one’s provisional assent.”

When the big-picture conclusions of evolution are challenged on ideological and pseudoscientific grounds, scientists and defenders of science will often emphasize the high degree of confidence that we currently have in evolutionary theory. This leads to the knee-jerk reaction of evolution deniers to call scientists “arrogant” and “dogmatic.” They confuse a high degree of scientific confidence with dogma, whether deliberately or not, but this tactic can be rhetorically effective.

There are so many slam-dunks for evolution that I have not been able to shake the feeling that if I had the time to walk someone through the best lines of evidence for evolution, and they has even the barest sliver of an open mind, I could convince them of its reality. Or at least I could give them a whopping dose of cognitive dissonance that might later nudge their opinions. On rare occasions I have even been able to do this – just often enough to keep this hopeful belief alive.

But I have also often thought that a valuable resource, for scientists, for skeptics, and for the public, would be a resource, accessible to the public, that documented the best cases for evolution. They are out there, in bits and pieces, if you know where to look. Talkorigins.org is perhaps the best single resource on the web. (Their server has been down recently – something about changing hosts – but you can access it at their backup site for now – http://toarchive.org/). There are also sources that provide responses to creationist nonsense.

What I would like, however, is a resource that brings together the home-runs for evolution and lays them out so that anyone literate enough to read can see the evidence for what it is.

Well, Nature magazine has decided to do just that – they have published with free online access 15 Evolutionary Gems, by Henry Gee, Rory Howlett and Philip Campbell. I will definitely be adding this to my list of goto sites about evlolution.

They hit many of the lines of evidence that I have been using as my best examples for evolution. For example, they discuss Ambulocetus and the evolution of whales, and the exploding fossil evidence for feathered dinosaurs and early birds. These were both examples the creationists liked to complain about there being no transitional fossils linking major groups. Then, beautiful transitional fossils were discovered – and then more and more.

Another great example they discuss is Tiktaalik – a link between tetrapod fish and land-dwelling vertebrates.

They discuss more than the fossil evidence for common descent, and also discuss evidence for natural selection, reproductive isolation, and other mechanisms of evolutionary change. And finally they document some of the best evidence from molecular genetics – such as the structure of genes and how small changes can lead to macroscale changes in morphology.

While I find the Nature article an excellent resource, it is not quite the ultimate resource I would hope for. First, the text is a bit dense for the lay reader. Take this final paragraph of the section on natural selection:

The study shows how the introduction of a predator can cause individuals of a prey species to change their behaviour so as to reduce the risk of predation, but also cause an evolutionary response at the level of the population that differs between the sexes according to their ecology.

That’s not quite as punchy as I would like, given that the stated purpose of this article is to spread evolution to the public. Also – how about some pictures? They discuss transitional fossils – well, a picture of a half-way whale, and some examples of half-birds/half-dinosaurs would be extremely effective.

They also don’t emphasize the importance of the evidence they are presenting enough. Why is Tiktaalik such a home-run for evolution?

I applaud Nature magazine for taking the time to address the public understanding of science and put together such a resource. I only give the execution a B, however. The evidence is so much more compelling than these articles would make it seem.

10 comments to Evolutionary Gems from Nature

  • The 15 gems were great choices, but I completely agree that it could have been more “punchy.”
    This was exciting to me, because I will be graduating with a degree in Secondary Biology Education this year, and this is a really good resource to prepare and consoladate major evolutionary discoveries.
    Thanks Steve.

  • jdclews

    As a non scientist who is not only fascinated by science but related to a number of fundamentalist creationist Christians it is great for me to have such resources in a “potted form” although I agree punchier (and perhaps a little more accessible by which I probably mean dumbed down) would be better. What would also be useful is a potted list of standard creationist arguments and the arguments refuting them. I have to say that Thunderf00t’s videos on Why people do laugh at Creationists are a marvelous resource but I would never be able to get the rellies to watch.

  • irishjazz

    While agreeing with the above, I think it is fair to point out that the battle with the creationists is asymmetrical. The evidence for evolution requires at least a base level of knowledge- understanding fossilization, stratification and other dating techniques for example. All the creationists need is faith and attitude.

    While punching up the text is a worthy effort, it will not matter to those who will not read or comprehend it, or who will merely look for ambiguities to befuddle or small dark corners in which to confidently stuff the almighty creator.

    The creationists may be running on empty, but hey, wasn’t that the miracle of Hanukkah?

  • RickK

    jdclews – Thunderf00t is good, but also try AronRa’s “Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism” series on youtube. They are emotionally satisfying, full of excellent video/audio coordination and loaded with information.

    For the relatives, you may have to take the conversation to their realm. I like hammering the “why would God make all this evidence for evolution” argument. The argument of “why do you take words written by men over nature written by God?” sometimes gets a “hmmm”. And I like the “evolution, as we understand it, is a system with simple rules that results in resilient, adaptable and beautifully diverse life. Isn’t it just the sort of elegant design God might use to get the job done?”

    And my favorite, coming back to Steve’s cited article – “if God could just ‘create’ fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, why would he need so many things in between?”

    Some favorite websites for evolution arguments:

    Search for Tiktaalik:
    http://tiktaalik.uchicago.edu/searching4Tik.html

    Reptile/mammal transitions:
    http://www.gcssepm.org/special/cuffey_05.htm

    Debunking “lists of scientists supporting creationism”:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty1Bo6GmPqM

    12,000 Christian Clergy supporting evolution:
    http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/Christian_Clergy/ChrClergyLtr.htm

    Ken Miller on transitional species:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9a-lFn4hqY

    Evolution in action today:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/26/science/26lab.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080417112433.htm
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13845002/

    This exampe even ADDED information (through gene duplication), something many evolution-deniers say is impossible:
    http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/15/8/931

  • empiricalgod

    I did something similar for my friend who is a Creationist. It took me like a month but i took what i felt was the most convincing evidence from mainly Talkorigins.org and put it together.
    From all the Creationists i know this guy is the most open to accepting arguments. He is reading up more on somethings i wrote about in my collection, which i wonder if it will have any effect on him.

  • larry coon

    High quality evidence is completely wasted on people who still throw out “If man descended from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” and “Evolution is just a theory” as though they were airtight, show-stopping arguments. I’ve gone over material in Zachary Moore’s “Evolution 101″ (another excellent resource, btw) with a creationist, who was completely unswayed. They simply aren’t arguing in the same courtroom as we are.

  • Havermayer

    Personally, I think it’s better to focus on evidence of common ancestry first and then to discuss evidence for mechanisms. The evidences are so staggeringly good for universal common ancestry, yet I hardly ever hear about most of them. I usually on hear about fossils. Why is this?

  • RickK

    Havermayer, here’s why I think that is true given my recent arguments with science-illiterate creationists.

    Genetic evidence for common ancestry gets dismissed by creationists by saying “God made it all that way. Why wouldn’t God re-use good, useful genetic mechanisms?” There’s nothing in the current state of life and genetics that necessarily denotes the passage of time. I’ve even seen people use the “Mitochondrial Eve” concept as proof of literal Genesis.

    Also, biology at a molecular level goes right over the heads of people who have actively denied science for years.

    Fossils turn out to be useful because if you can just “create” a fish and an amphibian, why would you bother to create several species in between? To the uninformed, fossils are bigger proof of evolution than DNA molecules. Fossils are tangible, they keep turning up supporting evolution, they’re buried in these annoyingly regular layers that prove Noah’s flood wrong, and they keep disproving the stupid mantra that “there are no transitional species”.

  • rachelwells

    Steve, you write so elegantly. You should consider doing that body preservation thing like your brother. Your brain is a keeper. Thanks!

  • ehunnell

    A relatively new book I am reading provides what I consider one of the slam dunks of evolution. I am sure you have heard about it but if not, take a look at Relics of Eden by Daniel J Fairbanks. It may not meet the definition of layman to a T but it is not too hard for the general public to understand. And if you are at all familiar with statistics and the number of base pairs, you have to accept that all of this evidence does not just happen by chance. And the sequences lead very strongly to an evolutionary path, not a creationist path.

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