Saturday, 30 May 2009

My Mom's a Monkey

Okay, not really, of course. She's an ape, a primate, but lacking a tail, she's no monkey, and her ancestors never were either. They were primates, like her, going back to the days of lemur-like creatures. And rather famously all over the news of late, we have discovered Ida, a precursor transition fossil, showing the links between monkeys and apes.

A note about terminology. The press loves to use the word "missing link", crowing about discoveries, as do the Literal Creationists, decrying the truth of those same discoveries. In truth, scientists don't talk about ideas like "missing links". It implies that there is something missing out there, in particular, linking two organisms or two species, and that it can be found. This makes for a convenient idea with Literal Creationists, as they can always suggest that the Missing Link has yet to be found. But there can never be such a thing.

As Zeno pointed out long ago, you can never reach the halfway point; as Heraclitus said, everything is in flux, so you can never jump into the same river twice. (His disciple pointed out you can never jump into the same river once.) Species are not concrete entities- they are constantly changing entities, in every generation. There is not a time when you can point to this and say it is Homo rhodesiensis, and to another, and say that is Homo sapiens. There is not an individual or fossil individual that would be exactly halfway in between, to be "the moment" when the transition occurred. It's not logically possible.

But evolutionary science dictates that you also can't find that transitional moment, even if it was there. Fossils are simply too rare, so that the vast majority of the 99% of species that have gone extinct will never be found. Certainly, it's possible that we have occasionally come across such an individual, who is roughly halfway between two other known species- but the odds are simply too much against it. And if we do find a halfway point, we would then have a new Missing Link to discover, between that species and the first, ad infinitum.

This is why scientists, as opposed to Literal Creationists and the media, discuss "transitional fossils". These are fossils that represent a half-way point, like the wondrous Tiktaalik, but we recognize that this species is not actually in our evolutionary history, but was probably a branching point, much as Homo erectus is a cousin, and not an ancestor. Evolution is not a tree with most branches reaching the top, but a Christmas tree, with the vast majority of species going extinct. We find only clues in different organisms that would give a sample indication of what would be a halfway point- a transitional fossil.

And Darwinius masillae, Ida, is just such a transitional fossil. And of course, as soon as she was discovered, there was the litany from Literal Creationists and Intelligent Designers that she wasn't a "missing link", and we still needed to find the real missing link etc. But there was another line of attack, suggested directly or indirectly by various people- that there is no way our ancestor could be a "monkey". Again, evolution doesn't suggest this, and Ida is no monkey. But more intriguing is why there would be such a visceral reaction to the idea of one's ancestors being monkeys.

One repeatedly runs into the idea that this in some way diminishes humanity, if our ancestors are monkeys. And though there is some resistance from the same groups to the idea of ancestors being fish, or bacteria, or amphibians, it is the monkey and "gorilla" idea that most offends. And this seems a bit odd. Why would this be the case?

There may perhaps be a relic from the egregious ties of African-Americans to monkeys, a legacy we thought was past, but is still used to this day in reference to even the First Lady. It may be that some few individuals still think this way, and don't want their (white) selves tied to the same insult they perceive of African Americans. But this can't be true for the majority who strenuously object to any ties between us and monkeys. Again, they reject Evolutionary Theory, but they have a more visceral reaction to this particular connection, claiming that it somehow diminishes humans to be tied in his manner. Continuously, in the objections to our tie to monkeys, comes the idea that it diminishes humans- and this is found in the earliest objections to Darwin's theory.

This is a mystery. For the majority of these people are Christians. And they follow a text that says humanity was made from dust, that God considers us as so still. We are but worms- even maggots! Is not a worm, and even a maggot, a far worse comparison that that of a monkey? The Bible makes it clear that we are nothing on our own, in our own status.

In the emotional objections of the Literal Creationists (as opposed to the reasoned objections), one continuously gets the idea that humanity must be elevated, as if they believed that what Hamlet says in jest should be so in truth- What a piece of work is man?!

And yet, in those same passages, it is clear that because of our nothingness, God cares for us. It is precisely when God calls us worms that he says he will help us. It is when he calls us dust that he rises in pity. God cares about the outcast and the downtrodden first. He desires to be the servant king. He asks only that we ask for his help, that we affirm that we are nothing without him.

Which leads inexorably to one conclusion. The writings of Literal Creationist and IDists indicate that they reject the tie to monkeys because it lowers our status. Our lowliness of status is affirmed continuously in the Bible. Indeed, the Bible ties directly our lowliness of status to the compassion of God, and, to the extent that we affirm our lowliness and need of him, he comes to assist us. And so, when any of us reject our lowly status, or any status because we perceive it as lowly, we reject the offer of help from God, and reject the idea of God as God.

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