Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Africa & Evolution

As a former anthro major, proud primate, contemplative hominid and one who has had more than a passing interest in human evolutionary theory, it was a sad day last week as I read the recent news from Kenya. Pentecostal Christian fundamentalists were attempting to have some of the most important finds in hominid anthropology removed to the back of the country's museums? Why? None other than the dreaded "E" word--Evolution. It seems Creationism has come to the birthplace of modern mankind, and now threatens to rob the world of an important part its history.

From ABC

Some of anthropology's greatest scientific treasures rest in the National Museums of Kenya. But they may soon become all but invisible if Christian fundamentalists get their way.

The museum is home to the most complete skeleton found yet of Homo erectus, the 1.7 million-year-old "Turkana Boy" unearthed by famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey more than two decades ago near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya

The museum also holds bones from several specimens of the first hominid to walk upright, four million years ago. In short, the museum contains the most convincing historic record of the origins of Homo sapiens. That's us, we're talking about.

Now, leaders of Kenya's Pentecostal congregation want the fossils de-emphasized. They'd prefer the bones be relegated to a backroom in the museum where fewer visitors would observe them or learn about the evolutionary theory of man.

Bishop Bonifes Adoyo who heads the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries, is leading the campaign.

"The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact, " Adoyo told the Skeptical Inquirer. "Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory."

Ironically Kenya, and much of East and Southern Africa where many finds of early man have been found, have long looked upon evolution favorably. While most of the world may know the remains of the 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis as Lucy, in the Afar region of Ethiopia she goes by the Amharic name Dinknesh--meaning "you are wonderful." Far from the battles carried out in the West by the religious right against evolution, Dinknesh was accepted with pride as an ancestral treasure (direct or indirect: afaraensis place on the human evolutionary tree is "bushy") in Coptic Ethiopia--which has incidentally known Christianity since the 2nd century AD, when two charges of captured Syrian monks managed to convert the royal family of Axum. Throughout East Africa, a generation of African paleontologists--such as Dr. Berhane Asfaw of Ethiopia and Kamoya Kimeu of Kenya--have sprouted up over the decades, and have played key roles in many of the most recent finds.

In fact, a recent evolutionary find related to humans was discovered in none other than East Africa:

Study Detects Recent Instance of Human Evolution

So I suppose whether it's Africa or America, the attack against science that doesn't fit with cultural norms is ongoing. As evidenced by the quote from the Kenyan Bishop--"Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes"--what detractors of evolution on the religious right usually have in common, no matter where they thrive, is that they don't have much of an understanding about evolution. So, seems about as good a time for a primer. I hope the good Bishop is paying attention.

Seven Quick Pointers on Evolution for We Big-Brained, Up-right Walking, Chimp-cousins to Heed So as We Don't Get Too Big for Our Britches:

1. Isn't Evolution just a theory?

Yes and No. Yes it is a theory. But not just. Biological evolution is both fact and theory. That it has happened, is happening and will happen is a fact. How it happens and works is theory. You know what else is a fact and a theory? Gravity. That it occurs is a fact. How it works, is still theory. The fact that Einstein's theory on gravity made advancements on Isaac Newton's didn't change the reality of gravity's existence. Need a second example, see electricity. That it exists is as obvious as the energy that powers the computer you're using. Yet we don't know exactly how electricity works. All we have are theories. So like evolution, both gravity and electricity are theory and fact. Yet I don't see anybody denying gravity's existence by walking off a cliff, or denying electricity's existence by sitting in the dark.

2. Didn`t Charles Darwin renounce evolution on his deathbed?

No. Chalk this story up to sub-urban religious right mythology. Even if it were true (which it's not), it wouldn't matter. A scientific premise is not based on a figurehead or prophet. It stands on its own merit. Evolution's most basic tenets existed before Darwin; it has evolved since him, and will continue to do so based on scientific evidence.

3. Evolution says humans came from apes. Yet animals like gorillas haven't evolved into people.

Not quite. Evolution does not say humans evolved from any modern apes. Rather evolution states that humans and other primates share a common ancestor. Modern apes are distant cousins to humans, not ancestors. We evolved one way. They went another. Chimpanzees and gorillas have evolved in ways that suit their ability to adapt. Evolution does not mean they will get big brains and ride horses and rule a world of "damned dirty apes!" That is Planet of the Apes science-fiction. Evolution does not equal "bigger brains" and "smarter." It's about adaptation. So no one expects shrimp to automatically one day become hyper-intelligent and make mp3 players--though be real cool if they did, because those gadgets would be very tiny. Regardless, that's not how evolution works.

4. Isn't Evolution for atheists?

Its for everyone. Many people of varied faiths, or non-faiths, accept evolution as the scientific explanation for Earth's biodiversity. In fact many religious leaders denounce Creationism and assert their acceptance of evolution and other aspects of science, such as geology and astronomy. Since 1987 the Episcopal Church has repeatedly and consistently acted to "affirm its belief in the glorious ability of God to create in any manner", rejected "the rigid dogmatism of the `Creationists` movement", and supported "scientists, educators, and theologians in the search for truth in this Creation that God has given and entrusted to us." Addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences before its meetings on Cosmology and Cosmogony in October 1981, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the statement of Pope Pius XII that the universe was created "millions of years ago" (it's actually 14.5 billion, but sure beats the Creatioist notion of 6,000) directly contrary to Creationist views. The Pope declared, "The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise..." Christians of varied faiths, Jewish groups, Muslim scientists, Buddhists, and others have stated much the same. So whether one wants to believe Evolution began with a God, or gods, or nothing at all or pixie dust--feel free. Evolution does not provide any evidence for the existence of God, or against the existence of God. It's neutral.

5. Isn't Creationism an Alternative to Evolution?

Not a scientific one. According to Newsweek in 1987, 99.86% of trained scientists accept evolution and denounce Creationism. There's hardly a larger bit of consensus to be found in the normally contentious scientific community. And the 0.14% that give Creationism a chance don't all have the same views.

6. If Evolution is right about life and Physics/Geology is right about the age of the Earth and universe, does this mean Genesis is a lie?

One way to look at it. Another way, would be that it makes the Genesis account like all other accounts of Creation the world over - symbolic. To quote the New Catholic Bible, " is a naive and futile exercise to attempt to reconcile the biblical accounts of creation with the findings of modern science... The first eleven chapters of Genesis are much closer to mythical forms of writing..." The World Christian Encyclopedia contends that there are 19 major world religions that are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and many thousands of smaller ones. Among these various faith groups, there are probably about 500 different creation stories. Each one of them is different-of which Genesis is but one. There is no such thing as "religious exceptionalism."

7. How can Evolution be true? Doesn't it have missing links?

Evolution does indeed have so-called "missing links." It also however has alot of very "found links." These are transitional fossils between species. Basilosaurus isis of the Ecoene epoch found in Egypt is a prime example. It's a fossil of a whale--with legs. It is a found link: a transitional form between itself and the legless seafaring whales we know today. There will always be "missing links." It would be a near impossible statistical feat to find the link for every single species that has ever existed for the past few billion years. But we have found so many that the pattern is obvious.

And that completes this week's Common Sense Moment. Join us next time for a brand new episode: 20 Problems with a Global Flood. Hijinks and hilarity ensue as Noah and his crew try to locate a pair of missing termites--on a wooden ship!