Saturday, September 7, 2013

Paleo-Myth Number 2: Fossil Bias Blinds Us

Let's do a little mental exercise.

Consider one of the more epic movie franchises in history, say the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Godfather films. Now imagine you have never seen these movies nor read the books that inspired them. You are allowed to watch the films, but you must watch them backwards. And you are not allowed to watch continual sequences of the film but only particular, random frames. At first you see maybe one frame every minute or so, but the deeper you get the longer are the gaps between the frames. Not only that but the frames that you are allowed to see are getting blurrier and blurrier, as if the editor spilled his coffee on them. Sometimes you can only make out vague shapes and figures but can not distinguish actual faces. Now imagine some of the problems and challenges that may arise in trying to decipher a coherent plot outline. For our purposes let's imagine the trilogy you are trying to outline is The Lord of the Rings. Now you will undoubtedly see a lot of Frodo and possibly many of the major characters- but you would probably miss many of the more minor characters and possibly even some of the major characters. But what you would miss most of all would be the subtle evolution of the characters. Would you catch the transformation of Gandalf the Grey into Gandalf the White? What if you missed the scene where Frodo had a falling out with Samwise? Would you ever realize Smeagol was once like a hobbit? What if you just never saw Sauron? The dissolution of the fellowship? Would you be able to figure out the trajectory of Aragorn from a ranger to the king?

And if you think about the problems and pitfalls of such an endeavor you will probably come to a greater appreciation of the pitfalls of deciphering the fossil record into a coherent story.

Now, I am not the first person to make this analogy and I don't recall exactly recall where I first heard it but I think it is very useful and dovetails into the particular myth I want to address and that has to do with any notion that the fossil record is complete or that we should even expect any kind of coherent narrative to be immediately evident. Fossil bias due to taphonomic processes, the pull of the recent, lack of exposed rocks and lack of proper sedimentation in many areas all contribute to a woefully inadequate picture of life evolving through time. Finding the proper suite of fossils that paint a logical evolutionary trajectory of any group of animals, say for instance whales, horses, or even hominids is the exception rather than the rule and even in these cases there are a lot of stop gaps and conjecture.

Maiacetus. John Klausmeyer
And this is an important line of reasoning to invoke because one of the chief arguments invoked against evolution is "where are all the missing links?" Again it should be noted that the very question itself is not properly in line with how evolution works because the very notion of missing link implies that there is some set goal, some final destination and this is very much not how evolution works. Evolution is a blind, grasping compromise of the anatomical/behavioral possibilities for an organism in a given environment. There is no final product. The organism you see now, or look at in the fossil record, is the optimal fit that was achieved at that particular time in that particular environment. It is not perfect nor is it sub-optimal.

If you view evolution as the unifying concept in modern biology, and therefore all of the major subsets including but not limited to anthropology, medicine, genetics, and of course paleontology, should we who favor this view as the prism from which to view the story of life.... should we be more strident in our defense of evolution?

Russ Meyer(L). Roger Ebert(R)defender of evolution

If you are like me you probably have got in at least one, but possibly many, heated exchanges with people who not only disavow evolution but subscribe to a young earth narrative. And if you are like me, you probably quickly realized the futility of the argument you got yourself into. And, like me, you will probably argue for evolution again anyways.... if not for the zealots who will not change, but for the fence sitters.

Being a warrior for evolution is a daunting task, but since schools so often fail in providing a good solid foundation for grasping evolution, it depends on people who care and understand what evolution means to pull up the slack. And this ultimately leads to arguments with people adherent to young earth/intelligent design/creationist beliefs. Remember you probably will not change their mind, but to any fence sitters on the sideline your argument does matter. Here is your reference to combating their arguments. An Index to Creationist Claims.

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