Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stop Following Me!

While on the bus between Montevideo and Punta Del Este yesterday, on my way to the 9th International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology, I ran into my old friend and colleague Professor Trellis of North Wales J. H. of Royston, who was attired in a T-shirt emblazoned with the following legend:

T-shirt modelled by Prof. J. H. of Royston, yesterday.

Like all memorable designs, this T-shirt says in a small space a great deal that´s profound. All by itself, it encapsulates everything I´ve been trying to express in draft after draft of the proposal for my next book, tentatively entitled The Myth of Progression: On The Tangled Bank of Darwin´s Imagination, currently doing the rounds of prospective publishers. The point is this: that species do not exist as staging posts between one ancestral species and another descendant species. Each species - or, rather, each individual - exists solely in the here and now, trying to gather resources and reproduce before it gets eaten, as part of an ecosystem - Darwin´s tangled bank - that changes, second by second, in innumerable subtle yet interconnected ways. The entire concept of ancestry and descent is a human construct, invented by us to make sense of the fossil record.

Now, I am perfectly aware that creationists, who seem to be my most assiduous admirers (to judge from the occasional ego-surfing sessions with which I indulge myself when I am feeling particularly lonely and unloved) will take sentences such as the foregoing and use it as an argument that even ´prominent evolutionary biologists´such as me don´t ´believe´ in evolution.

Pish, and, moreover, tosh. (Perhaps if I turn my charisma down a notch they´ll just drift away). To say that we cannot in principle spot ancestors retrospectively is not the same thing as saying that we do not have ancestors, and all the evidence is consistent with our sharing a common ancestor with chimpanzees that lived a few million years ago. There exist fossils whose morphology is consistent with the view that their living owners were more closely related to us than to chimps or other extant forms. The evidence for evolution is unarguable, and I refer any remaining doubters to the book The Greatest Show on Earth by Professor R. D. of Oxford. Both my regular readers will be aware that I am not Professor R. D.´s most uncritical fan, but that shouldn´t detract from the excellence of this book and many others from that distinguished author´s fecund pen (Climbing Mister Incredible, The Blonde Witchfinder, The Selfish Gnu, and many others, if memory serves).

Moreover and notwithstanding inasmuch as which, creationism fails because it works by cherry-picking the evidence it likes and disregarding inconvenient truths, in order to boster a pre-existing conclusion. That´s just not cricket scientific. Whereas one could legitimately accuse some methods that purport to be scientific to err into such misuse, these aren´t science either. Science has method - creationism, only advocacy.

But I digress.

Irrespective of one´s notions of ancestry and descent, the history of the study of human evolution exposes the canonical parade of simian erection as mythological. Each time a new species of hominin is found, it exposes just how misguided many of our cherished notions really are. When Neanderthal Man was found in 1856, it was dismissed as a pathological human - the discovery of Homo floresiensis, reported in 2004, was followed by very similar arguments. In both cases, the detractors were reacting against the discoveries because they were at such odds with what they thought ought to have happened, according to their preconceived notions. Of course, such notions do not come out of the air - they are conditioned by the evidence. The point is that the evidence is so weak and scanty that one could drive many hypotheses through the canon, each one equally plausible. It shouldn´t be forgotten that the creature that can see with equal clarity from either end is a blind horse.

My favourite critique of such evolutionary stories is not scientific, but literary, and was couched as a cod-literary essay - Kafka And His Precursors - by Jorge Luis Borges, an author whose home town was Buenos Aires, just across the River Plate from where I now sit. I have recently discussed this elsewhere in another context, but it could be raised just as legitimately here.

In his essay, Borges examines how Kafka´s works might have been influenced by a motley selection of sources from Zeno and Kierkegaard to Lord Dunsany, beforer delivering his disarming conlcusion (here translated by J. E. Irby).

‘If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist ... The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.’ [my emphasis].

To be sure, each species has its precursors, as do writers, but to pick them in particular, after the fact, is a dangerous game that might say more about the prejudices of those doing the selection as it might about objective reality. Creationism is spectacularly at fault, here - but those of us who consider ourselves scientists should also be on guard against falling into the same error. We humans like to place ourselves at the head of a parade of ever more puissant erection, when we in fact have little idea about the progress of human evolution - or, at least, not enough to tell such a story in anything more than the most general way. Zeno and Kierkegaard and Lord Dunsany toiled each separately for their own ends in complete ignorance of the Kafka who was to come - just as individuals we´d now assign to Australopithecus or Paranthropus were too busy engaged in the business of eating and sex to prognosticate on any golden evolutionary future that might or might not come to pass.


  1. What a handsome chap that J.H. must be in that t-shirt! ;)

  2. A very interesting post. It prompted me to think that there is a similar notion that some societies are 'primitive' while others are 'civilised' and that one develops into the other (progress). In fact, each society is a creative response by humans to their environment and is specific to that time and place.

  3. you said puissant erection.

    However, I must disagree with your premise. Australopithecus also spent a significant amount of time expelling waste and napping through the hot part of the day. The fossil record clearly showed he was a direct ancestor of the modern writer.

  4. I need to read this a few times. I like the Borges quote. Can I say teleonomy?

  5. "The point is this: that species do not exist as staging posts between one ancestral species and another descendant species"

    Is interesting to digress. I too have thought of that really has not found the Continuum between ancestor and descendant, is something we have assumed as an absolute truth asi something like Watson and Crick, but it really has not been said the last word in any case I am open to a catastrophic collapse of Darwinism, but I'm not a creationist. I digress.

    Kafka et al.

    Henry you have found with Cacofonix the bard?

  6. Gosh Henry - I had temporarily forgotten how good your stuff is.

    Have a great time in Uruguay!

  7. Funnily enough, I saw that design on a t-shirt at Heathrow... whenever it was. It must be going around.