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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="313"]Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation[/caption]

Anyone who knows me even a little will probably say science is one of my passions. However, describing my belief in science as a passion misses the entire point, as if it's some silly hobby I dabble in on weekends. It's not a hobby. It's a way of looking at the world universe and making sense of what's seen and experienced every day by people like you and me. Science is a methodology for understanding what we observe with our own senses, and doing so in a way that allows others to repeat the steps required to reach that understanding. It isn't always easy, and sometimes it isn't 100% correct - at first, but it is totally satisfying to those who take the time to understand the process.

That's where people like Bill Nye come in. It has always been the case where common understanding and acceptance of scientifically proven facts  lags behind the discovery of those facts. Such is the case with the Theory of Evolution, where 150 years later there are still large sections of humanity who don't understand it so don't accept it. Bill Nye, and others, span that acceptance gap and nudge humanity towards understanding. It's important for these people to not only have a voice, but to make their case publicly and often. A world without people like Bill Nye in it is a world mired in the Dark Age.

That's why this book exists. It doesn't exist to entertain, though Bill Nye's performance on the audio book I listened too was very entertaining at times, though he could have dispensed with the boss jokes after the third one if not sooner. This book does not exist to convert the faithful. As much as it doesn't pain me to say this, this book isn't about the faithful, at least not directly. The faithful are simply the convenient and willing counterpoint to what Bill Nye has to say. It's a position the faithful willingly placed themselves in; the debate with creationist Ken Hamm being but one example, but a prominent one used many times in this book. Thus it should come as no surprise faith based beliefs figure prominently in this text, but not in a way the faithful will appreciate.

Fact is, they won't read this book. That's okay. This book isn't meant for them. It's meant for their children. Bill Nye makes no bones about that. He as much says so several times. His concern is simple. Every child deserves an equal opportunity when it comes to having a prosperous future, but not understanding the underpinnings of modern medicine places many children at a disadvantage. You can't become a doctor in the United States without passing medical school. You can't pass medical school without understanding and applying the principles of evolution. Because bacteria. Because viruses. Because cancer.

The fact is, all of our best drugs are developed through a deep understanding of evolutionary processes. We manipulate evolution all the time to get the results we want: better antibiotics, better vaccines, drought resistant corn, treatments for Multiple Sclerosis, potential cures for cancer, the list is ginormous. To design a custom-made poison for any living creature, bacteria and viruses included, or to develop treatments for genetic or bio-chemical ailments, or to even make better food, demands a keen understanding of why those things exist as they are and what drives their continued existence - oft-times to our detriment. This understanding is the Theory of Evolution.

Wait, wait - but there's more. Bill Nye goes to great lengths to refute every argument made against evolution as the undeniable fact of how life on this planet, and probably everywhere else, arose and continues to exist. He does not refute these arguments simply by saying they are wrong. He lays out the evidence proving the wrongness of those arguments. Evidence any person can see for themselves with just a little curiosity and willingness to learn. Take geology and the fossil record for instance. Where do you find Trilobite fossils? No, don't Google it silly. Think! What do you know about these ancient creatures that no longer exist? They were sea creatures is the first thing that pops up in my brain. So right there you can write off formations of igneous rocks. And guess what, there are no Trilobite fossils found in the Cascade mountain range of Oregon where I live. That may seem like a simple example, but it is nonetheless strong evidence of an undeniable fact based on an understanding of evolution. Trilobites were sea creatures and therefore you'll only find their remains in sedimentary ocean deposits. Evolution informs our insight. That's how academicians describe that thought process, and Bill Nye expounds upon that concept beautifully in this book.

That right there is the biggest strength of this book. Like my old favorite television series Connections with James Burke, Bill Nye showcases the undeniable evidence for evolution by connecting it through the last 150 years to the discoveries and sciences that owe their existence to the understanding of evolution. And he doesn't stop there. There were mysteries in the past, like how whales got to be sea creatures, that our understanding of evolution solved. There's a word for that creature now, Ambulocetus. It's transitional fossil shows how a land creature can adapt to life in a shallow sea, ultimately leading to what we see as whales today. There's a chain of discoveries and scientific breakthroughs that lead to understanding how whales came to exist, and Bill Nye expertly details that chain of evidence.

Perhaps the biggest problem most people have with the Theory of Evolution is this concept of speciation. This is why creationists made up the concept of microevolution and macroevolution. It's impossible to deny what they fallaciously call microevolution because MRSA. It's killing people every day. But there is no micro or macro, there is only evolution. You don't get to pick and choose. That is not how science works and Bill Nye is very clear on that point. For those unfamiliar with the term speciation, here is what Wikipedia tells us,

Speciation is the evolutionary process by which new biological species arise. The biologist Orator F. Cook was the first to coin the term 'speciation' for the splitting of lineages or "cladogenesis," as opposed to "anagenesis" or "phyletic evolution" occurring within lineages.


In every day terms, it's how ancient hominids eventually became Homo Sapiens - us. That's what really gets under the skin of those who want to believe the human species is more special than all the other species on the planet. No one wants to be a monkey's uncle is how the old joke goes. That's not only wrong in the sense monkeys aren't hominids, but also wrong in the fact speciation does happen, is happening, has happened in the last 60 years fully documented and confirmed. The example Bill Nye cites is the London underground mosquito, Culex pipiens f. molestus.  There are other examples of speciation documented since Darwin's time, but that particular discovery has a lot of genetic evidence backing it up - genetic evidence that has been reviewed many times over and found to be generally correct except for a few details yet to be ironed out as mankind's understanding of genomics expands. Oh yeah, genomics, a science that wouldn't even exist if not for a thorough understanding of the Theory of Evolution.

He also shows off the scientific chutzpah of evolution with the example of TiktaalikTiktaalik is a transitional fossil showing how fish adapted to life on land to become amphibians. But that is not the really awesome part of this story. The really awesome part is how the fossils of Tiktaalik were discovered. The fossils of Tiktaalik were discovered in northern Canada by Edward B. Daeschler of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Neil H. Shubin from the University of Chicago, and Harvard University Professor Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. They were able to find them because evolution informed their search. See how that works? If you are looking for a transitional form for fish into amphibian, where would be the most likely place that would occur? Our observations of real world ecosystems say swamp. So where do you find a preserved 400 million year old swamp. It turns out certain geological formations in northern Canada meet all the criteria of where you'd expect such a creature to have lived. These paleontologists went to northern Canada and found exactly the fossil for which they were looking. In other words, they predicted the fossil would exist in sedimentary rocks meeting specific criteria and they were right.

That folks is called scientific prediction, and it is the coup de grâce of the scientific method. See, it isn't enough to just observe and explain. Science must also predict, and that prediction must be accurate. If your theory cannot predict, then it is not science - or at least not good science. That is how we know when a theory is true. You cannot make an accurate prediction based on a lie. If you try the prediction always fails. Go ahead and try it yourself. Make a prediction based on something you know is untrue, like a particular bus stopping at a particular bus stop when you know it doesn't. Then wait to see if the bus in question shows up. Dress warmly and take something to eat please. You may be there a while. Bill Nye deftly illustrates the truth of evolution by pointing out it can be used to make predictions that are accurate. It already has done, many times over. This is just one that was especially gratifying to the scientific community. I'm with them there!

There is so much more in this book, laid out logically and methodically; delivered in words everyone can understand. As I think the only people who will read this book are those unopposed to the ideas encompassed by evolution, you likely won't learn anything epiphanic. However, it will help you order your thoughts, and separate the facts about evolution from the malarkey so often thrown into the realm of public discussion to sow misunderstanding and doubt. After reading this book, you will have a better appreciation for the breadth and scope of how the Theory of Evolution underpins so much of what we take for granted in not only modern medicine, but also the nature of the world around us. Pun intended. Overall I give this book the same grade as Neil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandries which I reviewed in September: a solid B+ as a book, and a wholehearted A+ as an attempt to assist young people and the undecided to have an enriched and prosperous future. Give it a read. You won't regret the time spend on it. And one last thing. If you think accepting the fact evolution is means you have to give up God, think again. Nowhere in this book does Bill Nye ever say that. Quite the opposite in fact. Read it and find out what I mean. ;-)

2 comments:

  1. I'd like this twice if I could, just for the mention of Connections :)

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  2. I might have to look into finding the book, because it might be interesting reading.

    I have a problem with a little part of what you said however. "That folks is called scientific prediction, and it is the coup de grâce of the scientific method."

    Some believers in a deity might not know the science as well as they should to become doctors, but it is quite natural to dismiss someone who only calls you stupid and backward and other nasty names because you don't sign on to what they are telling you. Coming off all high and mighty and elitist and knowing everything because you studied doesn't lend to efforts you might make bringing them around to your point of view.

    On the other hand, much of what science says is how the world works. We'll leave aside all of the nutritional take backs and what is and isn't good for us and the debates about whether weather and climate and whatnot is changing or not and if we're doing it or not, as we have little effect on sunspots, and we have had ice ages and warming in the past.

    Science can tell us HOW things happen. Not necessarily WHAT did happen. You can know how fast a ball might roll down a slope, and might walk by and see a ball at the top of the slope, and later walk by and see the ball at the bottom of the slope. Knowing how long it was since you were first there, and how fast the ball might have rolled, you could predict the latest time the ball might have started rolling, to get to the bottom before you saw it. You could be wrong. If you asked anyone that was walking by if they saw the ball rolling, you might find that no one did. And then you find someone who saw me pick up the ball and move it to the bottom of the slope.

    Finding fossils where you think there should be fossils only means that if someone put them there, they followed the rules of the universe and put them where they should be. Remember the book Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the mice, and the contract planet? Remember the artist who did the fjords? I'm sure his work was exactly according to how science would say it should be as well.

    Science has many things it can explain, and many things it cannot, yet. It may be a lack of understanding, or a lack of tools to measure, or the reference point to measure from, as in "give me a place to stand and I can move the world." It is not the ultimate source of knowledge, and trying to dismiss someone's knowledge without being able to prove it wrong is not the scientific method. Science cannot prove a negative, so no one can say there is no deity that might have done what people believe has been done. Thus we are stuck with two camps at an impasse. Those that believe the bang blew up something, and those that believe someone made things.


    PS I somehow missed the last sentence you wrote reading through it three times. I'm going to post this as I wrote it anyway, because that last sentence is not one I hear from many talking about science or evolution and maybe we can have a little dialog on why that is, or what someone might need to say to get that point across more clearly. Maybe we have to put it down to idiot talking heads not knowing science either and just spitting out words they do not understand.

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Be civil, be responsible and most of all be kind. I will not tolerate poor form. There will be no James Hooks here. We are all better than that.