Remember the Michael Jackson 1992 video “Black or White”? (If not, you can see the video online from this link. You’ll need to have the free Quicktime player installed on your computer.)
During the video there is a sequence where a headshot of a singer is transformed in stages to that of a completely different singer. This process is called Morphing, and in this song it is done to several singers in a row.
Go take a look at the video – the actual morphing starts about halfway through the video – so you can skip ahead if you like.
There is a point during each morph where it’s impossible to tell if you’re looking at singer A or singer B – but the process happens so quickly that you don’t bother to label the intermediate stages of the process – you just wait until you can put the new singer into a neat pigeon hole.
Shades of gray
Richard Dawkins, in the chapter “Gaps in the Mind” from his book “A Devil’s Chaplin”, (you can read the original article here) speaks about how people like to see things clearly defined – in “Black or White” so to speak. People do not see that there is often an infinite series of gradually darkening grays that progress from white to black.
You can apply this blind spot to evolution – just as you don’t label each intermediate stage of the morphing process in Michael Jackson’s video, science does not easily label each stage of the morphing process between the stages of evolution of a species.
Michael Jackson’s video, like all American television, is displayed at 30 images per second. Each ‘morph’ from singer to singer takes perhaps 4 seconds – or 120 images. If you were watching this video on DVD, and your DVD player ‘hiccupped’ and skipped an image somewhere during the morphing process, you wouldn’t suddenly claim that the morph no longer made sense, or that it was no longer valid. There are still plenty of images displayed in a row for you to tell what is going on.
In Video Security (my current specialty) it is known that you don’t need very many images in a row to get a good sense of what is going on. A mere 2 images per second makes for a very jerky video, but provides more than enough information for a viewer to follow the action. In the “Black or White” video, if only 8 images were shown as one singer morphed into another, you would still understand quite clearly what had happened. The other images can disappear without destroying your overall knowledge of what happened.
Evolution deniers will often use specious arguments based on their own “Black or White” theories of how they believe evolution (doesn’t) work. For example – they say that no one has ever observed evolution in action, they say that there is a lack of ‘intermediate fossils’, and that if a new species arose from a parent species the new species would die off due to a lack of a mate, due to it being too different from it’s parents.
It’s easy to see where evolution deniers get their polarized thinking. Since their theories are usually based upon religion, instead of science, they must use the same “Black or White” thinking that they apply to God. Either God exists, or he doesn’t.
Ease on down the highway
Dawkins uses the analogy of a “Human Chain,” where a long line of people stand hand in hand, to show the flaw in “Black or White” thinking. I’m going to blatantly steal this analogy and update it for American readers.
Let’s start our human chain in Indianapolis, Indiana, where North Post Road meets Interstate 70. We will form the chain on the eastbound lane of I-70, heading for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (See the route – it’s about a 6 hour drive.)
A cute little girl stands on the empty highway here, facing north. Her right hand is outstretched, and is held by her mother’s left hand.
The little girl’s mother is also facing north. Mom’s right hand is clasped by Grandmother’s left hand and Grandmother’s right hand is clasped by Great-Grandmother’s left hand.
We play some games with this. First, we use Mother – Daughter relationships instead of Father – Son. It makes it easier to tell who was born from whom. Second, each daughter’s mother is brought out of time and space to stand on Interstate Highway 70 with all of her other relatives.
Each woman takes up about one yard of space.
So lets follow these daughters east on I-70 and see what happens.
- In a mere 500 feet, about a tenth of a mile, we come to Year 1 AD – Biblical ages. Caesar Augustus is the Roman Emperor.
- At almost four-tenths of a mile we come to the year 8,000 BC – Agriculture is a fairly new invention for the mother of this era.
- At almost 2 miles down the road we come to about 40,000 years ago – over 3000 generations. Flint tools are in vogue now.
- Just after the 6-mile mark, or 130,000 years ago, we see Madam Homo sapiens first use a stone ax.
- At 154 miles down I-70 from our starting point, or 2.5 million years ago, mom first starts using stone tools. Mom, and her stone tools, stand on I-70 near road US-23 in Columbus Ohio. This mom is known formally as Miss Australopithecus afarensis – but you can call her Lucy for short.
Finally, somewhere between Cambridge Ohio, and Washington Pennsylvania, near the state border, stands a very special mother. We will call her Mrs. Matriarch.
Instead of standing on the eastbound lane of I-70, Mrs. Matriarch stands on the highway-dividing median, facing west.
Mrs. Matriarch’s left hand clasps the right hand of her daughter, the line of daughters and granddaughters on the eastbound lane leading to our cute little girl back in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Mrs. Matriarch’s right hand clasps the left hand of a second daughter. This daughter stands on the westbound lane of I-70, and is facing south, instead of north – looking into the face of her sister.
These two daughters look like each other. Like any children, they look like their mother. Like any children, there are genetic differences – but these differences are inconsequential.
Mrs. Matriarch has a granddaughter on the westbound lane of I-70, and a great-granddaughter, and a great-great, and so on and so on. Each generation of daughters on the westbound lane face south, looking into the faces of their ever-increasingly distant cousins as they proceed west on I-70.
If we proceed all the way back to Indianapolis, Indiana, we come back to our starting place – the eastbound lane of I-70 still contains the original cute little girl that we started out with in the beginning, and she’s still facing north. In the westbound lane of I-70 we see a distantly related cousin to the little girl – the relationship is through Mrs. Matriarch, over 500,000 generations east on I-70.
This cousin, facing south and gazing into the eyes of the little girl, is a modern chimpanzee. The chimpanzee and the little girl are bound together by interlinked generations on the highway.
This wonderful analogy makes it glaringly obvious that there is no ‘black or white’ – there is never a handclasp on this chain where you can point and say, “This little girl is Human, and her mother is not.” There may be groups of women with similar features that you can point to and assign a category, such as Homo erectus, but it’s impossible to find the handclasp that seperates H. erectus and H. sapiens.
A woman takes a powder
What about the lack of intermediate fossils? What if a woman on this highway suddenly decided to run off to “powder her nose” so to speak? Her Mother and Daughter patiently wait for her to come back, leaving an empty space for her return.
If you were walking down the line doing an inspection, you would see that she’s missing, but you could also see that genetically it makes no difference. The missing girl’s mother and daughter are obviously of the same bloodline – there is no need to suspect that a completely different bloodline jumped in here.
What if we randomly chose a one-mile segment of the highway, passed out pink slips and told those women that “their services were no longer needed.” 1760 generations of women are sent home – a period that spans almost 21 thousand years.
21 Thousand years seems like a long time – but if you apply it to modern Humans you see that it doesn’t make much of a difference. H. sapiens emerged around 100 thousand years ago. 21 thousand years ago H. sapiens were using flint blades to hunt, creating cave art, using language, and advancing their culture. These humans would look very similar to us today – they would be so genetically similar that a person from 21 thousand years ago could easily have children with a contemporary human.
We could throw out a 4-mile section of the highway just as easily, creating an 83 thousand year gap. And still we could easily prove a relationship between the two women on either side of this gap. The women on either side of the gap are still so genetically similar that they could successfully mate with the same man.
Only when we create a gap of 24 miles or more do we start making gaps that cannot easily be bridged by genetics – 24 miles is half a million years or more than 40 thousand generations. But even across this gap there is enough genetic similarity that a mating should produce a genetic ‘mule’. There is more than enough genetic similarity to easily deduce that the women at the ends of this gap are related.
In paleontology there are such gaps in Human evolution – no gap in this highway of mothers and daughters is so great that it becomes impossible to tell who is the next woman on the highway.
Evolution deniers who point out the lack of intermediate fossils – gaps in the highway – have not opened their eyes. There is plenty of evidence.
When someone says that a new species arising from an old species would die off due to the lack of a mate it is evidence of simplistic ‘Black or White’ thinking – this is a fatal flaw in our infinitely shaded world. There is no place on our highway where a daughter is genetically incompatible with her peers.
Lord of the Ring Species
If I haven’t bored you enough, let’s put to rest one more tired canard voiced by Evolution deniers. They often say that no one has ever observed evolution – so it doesn’t happen.
I could pose the question here that if evolution isn’t ongoing, why do we need increasingly stronger antibiotics? Why doesn’t plain old penicillin work on every bug anymore? If you don’t believe in evolution, I guess that means you’ll give up your flu shots too, right? You should put your money, or in this case, your life, where your theology is.
But the stuff that happens under a microscope isn’t readily observable by the common person. (Well, not until someone dies from flesh-eating bacteria.)
Dawkins, in “A Devil’s Chaplin,” mentions a ‘ring species’. He uses the classic example of the Larus Gulls, but I’ll use a more local (to me) example of the Ensatina salamander currently living in a distribution around California’s central valley.
Salamanders prefer cooler weather, with a moist environment. The California central valley is a very hot, dry environment and creates an impassible barrier to this species.
Charles Brown gives an excellent explanation of this salamander ring species on his web site – you can go there for details. I will only point out in my graphic that the six subspecies of Ensatina salamander live in a ‘ring’ around the valley. At every place in this ring, each subspecies is able to breed with adjacent species in the ring, all the way around except where the ring breaks just to the east of San Diego. Here, eschscholtzi and klauberi meet with each other and can NOT breed! Careful study has shown these two salamander subspecies of Ensatina are different species from each other, by definition.
A ring of salamander relatives genetically connect these two groups together just as surely as the little girl on highway I-70 in our example is connected to the chimpanzee in the westbound lane of the same highway. The ends of this ring cannot breed together just as a Human cannot breed with a chimp – but these rings are connected together just the same.
Here we observe speciation in action – something that Evolution deniers say can’t happen, is happening RIGHT NOW. And not only here – there are other examples of ring species.
The only difference between a ring species and our highway example is all links of a ring species are alive.
In conclusion – another joke at the expense of Michael Jackson.
On a more personal note to evolution deniers – no matter how hard you try, you can’t frame Evolution in terms of “Black or White”.
Now beat it.