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Evolution is Still True

This chapter contribution to Scientific American was originally published as “These Truths Are Not Self-Evident—but They’ve Been Firmly Established Over and Over by Scientific Research” (November, 2016). It was co-authored by Michael Shermer, Harriet Hall, Ray Pierrehumbert, Paul Offit, and Seth Shostak.

In a letter to his friend the botanist Joseph Hooker, dated January 14, 1844, Charles Darwin recalled from his voyage around the world in the HMS Beagle: “I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c…that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact which cd bear any way on what are species.” After five years at sea and nine years at home thinking about the origin of species Darwin concluded: “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”

Like confessing a murder. Dramatic words. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or an English naturalist—to understand why a theory on the origin of species by means of natural selection would be so controversial: if new species are created naturally—not supernaturally—what place, then, for God? No wonder Darwin waited 20 years before finally publishing his theory in 1859, and why more than a century and a half later people of some religious faiths still find the theory threatening. But that 150+ years have brought together so much evidence in support of the theory that it would be truly astonishing if it turned out not to be true—on par with doubting the Big Bang origin of the universe or the germ theory of disease. Why? Because of a convergence of evidence from many lines of inquiry.

Cosmologists, for example, reconstruct the history of the universe through a convergence of evidence from astronomy, astrophysics, planetary geology, and physics. Geologists reconstruct the history of the Earth through a convergence of evidence from geology, geophysics, and geochemistry. Archeologists piece together the history of civilization through a convergence of evidence from pollen grains, kitchen middens, potshards, tools, works of art, written sources, and other site-specific artifacts. As a historical science, evolution is confirmed by the fact that so many different lines of evidence converge to this single conclusion. Independent sets of data from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, herpetology, entomology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, genetics and population genetics, and many other sciences each point to the conclusion that life evolved. (continue reading…)

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Our Neandertal Brethren

Genome sequencing has revealed our common humanity
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According to the late Harvard University biologist Ernst W. Mayr, the greatest evolutionary theorist since Charles Darwin, “species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations which are reproductively isolated from other such groups.”

Reproductive isolation is the key to understanding how new species form, and many types of barriers can divide a population and split it into two different groups: geographic (such as a mountain range, desert, ocean or river), morphological (a change in coloration, body type or reproductive organs), behavioral (a change in breeding season, mating calls or courtship actions), and others. After isolation, if members of the split populations encounter one another and cannot produce viable offspring that can themselves later successfully interbreed and produce viable offspring (hybrids such as mules are infertile), then these two populations constitute two different species. (continue reading…)

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Darwin Misunderstood

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday two myths persist about evolution and natural selection
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On July 2, 1866, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, wrote to Charles Darwin to lament how he had been “so repeatedly struck by the utter inability of numbers of intelligent persons to see clearly or at all, the self acting & necessary effects of Nat Selection, that I am led to conclude that the term itself & your mode of illustrating it, however clear & beautiful to many of us are yet not the best adapted to impress it on the general naturalist public.” The source of the misunderstanding, Wallace continued, was the name itself, in that it implies “the constant watching of an intelligent ‘chooser’ like man’s selection to which you so often compare it,” and that “thought and direction are essential to the action of ‘Natural Selection.’” Wallace suggested redacting the term and adopting Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest.” (continue reading…)

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Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie
interviews Michael Shermer

During his book tour Michael Shermer visited the offices of Reason magazine, who have recently added Reason.TV to their media package, a project helped launched by Drew Carey, who turns out to be a big fan of Skeptic magazine and all things skeptical. In this interview Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie interviews Shermer on his new book, The Mind of the Market.

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Evonomics

Evolution and economics are both examples
of a larger mysterious phenomenon
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Living along the Orioco River that borders Brazil and Venezuela are the Yanomamö people, hunter-gatherers whose average annual income has been estimated at the equivalent of $90 per person per year. Living along the Hudson River that borders New York State and New Jersey are the Manhattan people, consumer- traders whose average annual income has been estimated at $36,000 per person per year. That dramatic difference of 400 times, however, pales in comparison to the differences in Stock Keeping Units (SKUs, a retail measure of the number of types of products available), which has been estimated at 300 for the Yanomamö and 10 billion for the Manhattans, a difference of 33 million times! (continue reading…)

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