The Woodstock of Evolution
(Top Posts - Science - 070305)

June 27, 2005

The World Summit on Evolution, held in
the Galapagos Islands, revealed a science
rich in history and tradition, data and theory,
as well as controversy and debate

by Michael Shermer


8 key highlights of some of the fascinating informa-
tion contained in the article:

1) Darwin was a Creationist before he developed
the theory of evolution

2) Origin of Life (on Earth) -- 3 sources

3) Origin of Life (on Earth) -- what we know and
what we don't know yet

4) Origin of Life (on Earth) -- what came first, cells
or RNA

5) Extinctions

6) Intelligent Design Creationism

7) Sex

8) Science's Greatest Strength

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1) Darwin was a Creationist until a full 10 months
after he left the Galapagos Islands. Key ex-
cerpt: "... he did not fully realize the importance
of these islands until he returned home and
began work on his extensive specimen collec-
tion. To his chagrin (once he became an evolu-
tionist), Darwin realized that he had not recorded
the island locations from which most of his spec-
imens came from, and thus he had to rely on the
notes taken by other Beagle crew members as
well as the arch-creationist Captain Fitz-Roy.

2) Origin of Life (on Earth) -- Per one scientific pre-
sentation / theory, "... there were three sources
for the primordial soup: a reducing atmosphere
from volcanic outgassing, high-temperature sub-
marine vents and fumaroles [a hole in a volcanic
region from which hot gasses and vapors issue],
and space--the 4.6 billion-year-old Murchison
meteorite, discovered in Australia in 1969, for
example, was loaded with amino acids, aliphatic
and aromatic hydrocarbons, hydroxy acids, pur-
ines, pyrimidines, and other chemical building
blocks of life.

The evidence strongly suggests that prior to the
origin of life the primitive Earth already had many
different catalytic agents, polymers with se-
quences of nucleotides, and membrane-forming

... This prebiotic soup led to a catalytic and repli-
cative RNA world, which led to the DNA world of

3) Origin of Life (on Earth) -- "... What do we know?
What are the unsolved problems? What have
we failed to consider? ... We know the overall
sequence of life's origin, from CHONSP (carbon,
hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus),
to monomers, to polymers, to cells; we know that
the origin of life was early, microbial, and unicellu-
lar; and we know that an RNA world preceded to-
day's DNA-protein world.

We do not know the precise environments of the
early earth in which these events occurred; we do
not know the exact chemistry of some of the im-
portant chemical reactions that led to life; and we
do not have any knowledge of life in a pre-RNA

As for what we have failed to consider ... the 'pull
of the present' makes it extremely difficult for us
to model the early earth's atmosphere and the
biochemistry of early life."

4) Origin of Life (on Earth) -- "... what came first, cells
or the RNA world? ... If you define a cell as a mem-
brane-enclosed system, then lipids-enclosed sys-
tems assisted in the polymerization [chemical reac-
tion in which two or more molecules combine to
form larger molecules that contain repeating struc-
tural units] of molecules, which led to RNA. Lipids
and cells came first, then the RNA world."

5) Extinctions -- "... 99.99999 percent of all living spe-
cies who ever lived have gone extinct ... evidence
of evolution in the Phanerozoic (from 542 Ma,
million years ago, till the present), emphasizing the
importance of mass extinction events in resetting
the direction of evolution, the importance of evolu-
tionary arms races in driving morphological [form
and structure of animals and plants] innovation, the
relationship of climate change and changing geog-
raphy to evolutionary change, and the extent to
which evolution can be described as directional.

With half a billion years of a solid fossil record ...
we can track the evolutionary periods of creativity
and crises ... despite the impact of the five big-
gest mass extinctions (Ordovician 439 Ma, Devon-
ian 367 Ma, Permian 245 Ma, Triassic 208 Ma,
Cretaceous 65 Ma), many organism groups
passed through all of these extinction episodes
safely ... What is amazing is not only the extent
of loss, but how fast life bounces back."

6) Intelligent Design Creationism -- "... virtually all
Intelligent Design creationists are Evangelical
Christians who privately believe that ID and God
are one and the same ... IDers are disingenu-
ous about their 'science'. They are not doing
science and they know it ... the cognitive style
of ID ... 1. X looks designed, 2. I can't think of
how X was designed naturally, 3. Therefore X
was designed supernaturally ...

... ID in practice ... 1. Scientists do not accept
ID as science, 2. Therefore ID is not taught in
public school science classes, 3. I think ID is
science, 4. Therefore I will lobby the govern-
ment to force teachers to teach ID as science.
This is what I call the 'God of the Government'
argument: if you can't convince teachers to
teach your idea based on its own merits, ask
the government to force teachers to teach it."

7. Sex -- "... People are surprised to learn how
much sex animals have for purely social rea-
sons (including same-sex sexuality in over 300
species of vertebrates) ... and how many spe-
cies have sex-role reversal in which the males
are drab and the females are colorfully orna-
mented and compete for the attention of males,
and that most plants and perhaps a quarter of
all animal species have individuals that cannot
be classified as male or female.

... there is much we still do not know ... since
Darwin's time much has been learned about
mate selection and competition that should not
be dismissed."

8. Science's Greatest Strength: "not only the ability
to withstand such buffeting [disagreements], but
to actually grow from it. Creationists and other
outsiders contend [at times] that science is a
cozy and insular club in which meetings are held
to enforce agreement with the party line, to cir-
cle the wagons against any and all would-be
challengers, and to achieve consensus on the
most contentious issues.

This conclusion is so wrong that it cannot have
been made by anyone who has ever attended
a scientific conference. The World Summit on
Evolution, like most scientific conferences, re-
vealed a science rich in history and tradition,
data and theory, as well as controversy and de-

From this I conclude that the theory of evolution
has never been stronger."

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