Evidence for Evolution - Your Elevator Pitch

I’m certainly happy to help so far as I can. I think, though, that what you will find is that all explanations which are concise, tight and compact are incomplete, while all explanations that strive for completeness are non-concise. And all explanations, at any level, depend for their credibility upon data which are external to the explanation, and which are never concise.

If I had to crunch it all down to a paragraph it would run something like this:

“The history of life on the planet, as demonstrated by the fossil record, shows a long series of organisms. These originate as single-celled forms, followed by the earliest multicellular forms. Later multicellular forms have more complexity of construction and cell types. This goes on for some time and there is a very definite succession in which the creatures of one period look rather like the creatures of the preceding period with modifications – together, in most cases, with the continued existence of things which continue to look analogous to the earlier forms. This sequence gives us, for example, worms when there are no chordates, primitive chordates before early jawless-fish vertebrates, jawless fish before jawed fish, jawed fish before jawed, lobe-finned fish, lobe-finned fish before tetrapods, tetrapods before amniotes, amniotes before synapsids, pelycosaurs before therapsids, therapsids before mammals, early mammals before rodents, early rodents before sciurids, then, at the pinnacle, the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Some of these periods of change in this sequence are beautifully detailed – see Jenny Clack’s book Gaining Ground on the origin of tetrapods, for example, or Kemp’s Origin and Evolution of Mammals, for another. Some process must account for this gradual, layered, long-term change from the fauna of long ago to the fauna of today, and the fact that the fauna occur in this order and that the changes have this character of elaboration and addition to existing forms strongly suggests that the old forms are the ancestors of the new. Attempts to create a phylogeny on the basis of morphology generated a detailed picture of animal ancestry, before there was any substantial knowledge of genetics. Now, genetic analysis has massively confirmed that phylogeny, and genetics bears quite directly upon descent.”

Now, here’s the problem. Creationism is an industry dealing in deceit, and it has generated objections to all of that. Not substantial objections, of course; ludicrous and laughable objections. But even the YEC who doesn’t think about this stuff very much has heard some of them. If he hasn’t, and he relays that to a friend, he will start to hear them. At that point, DETAIL is all that will do. He’s got to make a serious and sincere study of it, and he’s got to understand evolutionary theory BEFORE trying to view it through the fun-house mirror of creationism, because that fun-house mirror will give him a caricature of evolutionary theory which he will have a hard time separating from reality, if he does not understand reality first.

I don’t buy that at all. I read all manner of books, including those whose contents I am curious about for all sorts of reasons. I read Mein Kampf recently. I certainly wasn’t convinced by an elevator pitch for that, and I didn’t need to be, because I wanted to UNDERSTAND something about Nazism, not just confirm existing beliefs (which, to be clear, are ANTI-Nazi!). Not long prior to that, I read Das Kapital, and likewise, I didn’t need to be convinced to become a communist first. Das Kapital sits on my shelf next to Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (just as Marx and Spencer, who live on as a department store, sit in Highgate cemetery a stone’s throw away from one another). I have the Bible, the Koran, at least a dozen creationist books, books on economics from a dizzying variety of points of view, and contentious and interesting literature on any number of other subjects from cheese-making to archaeology. So, no; you don’t need to be convinced by the elevator pitch before you can inform yourself.

Indeed, who on earth gets convinced by elevator pitches? Not me! Holy cow, what a lousy way to do business! Every religion has its own elevator pitch – you’d have to believe them all, if they could summarize themselves in a short description? Every pseudoscience has an elevator pitch, too. Nobody should EVER be convinced by an elevator pitch to do anything except perhaps to say “golly, that sounds interesting. I’ll have to find out whether there’s really anything to it.”

Now, as to book suggestions, let me suggest something a bit out of the ordinary. People will often tell you to read Coyne, or Dawkins, or some such thing – books that are written as a kind of advocacy for evolutionary theory. I would recommend something else. Read something that acquaints you with the variety and scope of living things, like Colin Tudge’s The Variety of Life (now a bit out of date, but I don’t know a good substitute). March through the phyla and learn something about everything from Platyhelminthes to platypuses. And then get a good book on some aspect of the faunal succession: those books I mentioned by Clack and Kemp are nice, if a bit technical. Far better to see how evolutionary theory applies to particular topics than to just get a broad, simplified overview. These things do not “argue” for evolution at all, but the argument they do not make is ten times as compelling, to me, as the arguments people do explicitly make for evolution.