No, reddit, the Catholic Church has not accepted Darwinian evolution since 1950

The website reddit has recently been making notable shifts in its behavior. While it was once a place for open discussion and the relatively free exchange of ideas, the past several years have seen the owners change gears in an attempt to attract far more advertisers. We see this most blatantly when they suddenly shut down a forum, known within the site as a “sub” or “subreddit”, after a reporter (such as Anderson Cooper) sheds light on some questionable content being peddled on the site. Sometimes this is actually the right move by the reddit owners, but they almost never do it for the right reasons. Again, they’re interested in advertiser money. That’s it.

But merely shutting down bad content isn’t the only way the site has taken to putting on an ad-friendly face. When one of the owners went on Jimmy Kimmel’s show last year, he made it a point to push the ‘wholesome’ content of the website (despite a sizeable portion of its traffic coming from porn). Not long after, subreddits with the word “wholesome” in them began growing and growing. Some of this can likely be attributed to the national exposure they were given, but much of it is likely due to content manipulation where the reddit owners and employees push preferred content to the ‘front page’. This is surely why the site transitioned from being open source to close source – there’s no longer any way for users to confirm whether or not voted-on content has been altered to appear more popular than it is. And that vote manipulation (which has endless examples from just this past year, it seems) continues with this objectively incorrect post from the subreddit “Today I learned” (or TIL):

TIL the Catholic Church has accepted Darwinian evolution as compatible with Christianity since 1950.

Many of the top comments in the thread talk about how people who attended Catholic schools were taught evolution without issue, or how Catholics themselves have been responsible for many scientific theories and ideas. And, ‘naturally’, one prominent comment talks about how nice the thread is.

Of course, it’s all bullshit.

The reality is that the Catholic Church believes in the magic that is theistic evolution. This is not Darwinian in any sense of the word. This is an entirely made-up version of evolution that says humans were destined to exist. That is not what evolution says at all. Nothing in the theory dictates that humans or human-like beings will come into existence.

But let’s look at what Pope Pious XII actually had to say about evolution in 1950:

Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things, and audaciously support the monistic and pantheistic opinion that the world is in continual evolution.

He goes on to insult communists after this, so it isn’t easy to parse the politics of the writing from the commentary about biology, but it is clear that the Catholic Church did not believe that evolution had been proven. Saying something like that is equally as wrong as saying the theory of gravity has not been proven. Furthermore, the Church also didn’t believe that evolution was still occurring. This, of course, was and is wrong. Evolution does not stop so long as life continues. Humans are not its culmination – it has no culmination. It has replicators that replicate and change over time.

For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

Here is a great example of where the Church 1) does not understand evolution and 2) holds a position in contradiction to evolution. Notice where the Pope says the Church holds that souls are immediately created by God. That is, souls are immortal and eternal while bodies are mortal and temporal. The soul, per the Church, has always existed and will always exist. It is merely joined to an earthly human body for a brief period. But there was no first human body. Evolution occurs on a spectrum and we are only able to define what makes a species its own species because of time and separation. One generation of Species A does not give birth to a generation of Species B. So that forces the issue: does the Church believe there was a first human? If so, did its mother and father not have souls? And what about neanderthals? Or our other human-like cousins? Did they have souls?

The bottom line is that theistic evolution requires that 1) humans were inevitable, 2) humans are the culmination or peak of evolution, and 3) there was a distinct, definable first human. Darwinian evolution, on the other, correct hand, tells us that none of those things are true. Nothing in evolution, aside from change itself, is inevitable. Legs? Lungs? Brains? Fingers? Speech? Fins? Wings? None of that is inevitable. And nothing, including humans, can constitute the culmination or peak of evolution. And, again, species are fluid. Species A will always give birth to another generation of Species A.

But I’m sure the reddit powers-that-be are happy to know their advertisers are seeing positivity and a favorable view being given to religion, so none of these pesky facts really matter.

Get vaccinated

It never ceases to amaze me just how many anti-vax people there are out there. Every time I bring up the topic it isn’t the pro-vaccine people who come out in support. No, instead it’s almost exclusively the anti-vax quacks. I suppose the same thing happens with circumcision, 9/11, and a history of Obama’s life: the anti-circumcision crowd, truthers, and birthers are going to immediately overwhelm the discussion. But even with this massive selection bias, the sheer number of nuts out there is incredible. I suspect to see as much regarding this post, should it garner a response at all. However, as a decent human being with a little bit of knowledge, I feel duty-bound to present a few vaccine facts.

Vaccines are incredibly safe. This is true of all vaccines, but especially of the flu vaccine. The most likely side effects anyone is going to suffer are mild soreness or a low grade fever. A study from about 10 years ago did find that one version of the swine flu vaccine from the mid-70’s was associated with a tiny increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome, but correlation is not causation. No one knows why there was such an association, but for this reason those with a history of the syndrome are cautioned and should speak with their doctor to assess their exact situation. Also, those with severe egg allergies are cautioned, plus those who are currently sick with one thing or another should wait.

Vaccines change each year because of evolution. From time to time I’ll hear an objection to the fact that the flu vaccine is different each year. Why, the argument seems to go, scientists are just guessing. That’s not true. While they are making an educated guess, it’s more than just throwing up a prayer and hoping they get it right. Each year’s vaccine is based upon the most recent research and information available. This is necessary because of the speed of a virus’ evolution.

Everyone over 6 months old should get vaccinated. This, of course, takes into account the caveats I’ve already presented, but for the vast majority of people, vaccination is recommended. Vaccines save lives, and if that’s not important enough to you for some crazy reason, they also save money by cutting down on sick days.

The flu vaccine is effective. Exactly how effective the flu vaccine is will vary from year to year, as well as from age group to age group. A person’s overall health is also a factor. In general, though, the vaccine’s effectiveness ranges from 50-80%. The most common (and most annoying) ‘counter’ to this is to look at absolute risk reduction. A person who does this is usually either a quack or has gathered information from a quack. It isn’t that absolute risk reduction is invalid. It’s a perfectly good way to understand how wide-spread a disease or sickness is and how our health policies are dealing with it. For the flu vaccine, the actual reduction in risk is about 1.5%. That sounds miniscule, but we can make a lot of things sound miniscule. What’s happening here is we’re looking at the total population and calculating the number who would get the flu without any vaccine. That’s a very small percentage. Then we’re looking at how likely it is that of the percentage that actually gets vaccinated is going to not get the flu as a result. Again, this is useful. However, when presented in the context of this discussion, it isn’t useful. It would be as if someone argued that since the absolute risk of contracting HIV in Tanzania is very low over, say, intercourse with 5 different partners, the 97-99% effectiveness of condoms is moot. Why, who needs condoms? You probably won’t contract it anyway! Pshaw.

Vaccines, not sanitation, have eradicated or nearly eradicated disease. While it’s obviously true that increased bathing, hand washing, and better filtered water have made us healthier and less likely to contract various diseases, these alone cannot get rid of disease. Smallpox has been eradicated for over 30 years now because of vaccines, not because more people than ever are buying bars of Irish Spring soap. Polio is nearly eradicated because of vaccines; India was recently declared polio free – that isn’t a country exactly known for its impeccable sanitation practices. Yellow fever persists because so many people go unvaccinated (even though the vaccine is 99% effective), and no amount of sanitation is going to change how many people die from it each year since its primary vector is the mosquito.

There are far more thorough sources out there that have vaccine facts covered in much better detail than I have here, so this is far enough for me. I simply wanted to address some of the issues that bother me the most about the vaccine misinformation floating about. For nearly every single person, vaccination is the smart option. The caveats are small and specific, the side effects minor and manageable. Get vaccinated.

Theistic evolution

The problem I have with theistic evolutionists who believe humans are special is that they seem to be ignoring or unaware of the fact that evolution is a continuum. At no point does one species simply become another species. It is simply the presence of time and absence of generation-by-generation fossils that allow us to declare one group such-and-such species and another group this-and-that species.

So think about this. It’s generally estimated that humans, as we anatomically know them today, came about around 250,000 years ago. (It’s 100,000 by other estimates, but let’s just pick a number, so in this case we’ll say 250K.) That doesn’t mean that in 250,000 B.C. we went from one Homo primate to Homo sapiens. It was gradual. Now, if we stretch things out, it becomes easier to make distinctions. So 500,000 years ago, let’s say, it’s pretty clear there are no humans walking the Earth. How about 400,000? Nope, still none. 300,000? We’re closer, but humans aren’t there yet. Then we get to 250,000 and it looks like we’ve got humans, more or less. But what if we had more exact fossils? Could we say 260,000? How about 255,437? Would that even make sense?

The answer is an emphatic “No”. The viable offspring of two sexually reproducing organisms isn’t a different species. Sure, we have things like mules and ligers, but those only go to the point being made here – they aren’t viable. And if they were viable, it wouldn’t be worth declaring them different species. It’s all a continuum.

So the question to put to theistic evolutionists who believe humans are special is, At what point did we become special? If it was in 255,437 B.C., then why weren’t the parents of that human special? What made them fundamentally different from their offspring?

Cornelius ‘Common Creationist’ Hunter

Cornelius Hunter has a history of struggling to understand simply concepts. Today is no different:

As with the so-called vestigial structures—another evolutionary construct—function is, ultimately, irrelevant. A structure is “vestigial,” or DNA is “junk,” not by virtue of any objective criterion dealing with function, but because evolutionists say so.

His post was primarily about so-called ‘junk DNA’, but I’ve addressed that topic in the past, so I will only mention it to note that it only ever betrays a deep ignorance when creationists talk about it. What I really want to discuss is Hunter’s mention of vestigial structures. First, let’s define our term:

[Vestigial] refers to an organ or part (for example, the human appendix) which is greatly reduced from the original ancestral form and is no longer functional or is of reduced or altered function.

Vestigial structures provide a clue to the evolutionary history of a species because they are remnants of structures found in the ancestral species.

It’s easy to see Hunter’s error. A vestigial structure need not be related to function whatsoever – and that doesn’t therefore mean that it is merely the say-so of biologists that makes it vestigial. The human ear, for instance, has vestigial muscles that don’t do anything; in our ancestors (and cousins), their function is to swivel the ear for better directional hearing. That’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. DNA comparison can, does, and will show that when looked at. Furthermore, a vestigial structure can have a function while still being vestigial. For instance, whales have remnants of hind legs that clearly are not used for walking. However, they do play a role in where muscles are attached. Again, that’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. Hunter just isn’t familiar with these things.

Jellyfish Lake

Here’s a neat video about jellyfish that have evolved to utilize photosynthesizing algae that produce sugars, in turn providing food for the belled organisms:



These jellyfish are locked in a freshwater marine lake that formed within pieces of volcanic land that ‘sprung’ up in the Pacific; the lake filled in some 12,000 years ago as rising ocean levels reached its basin. Jellyfish Lake With no notable predators (sorry, sea anemone), the jellyfish have reproduced to incredible numbers (10 million by one estimate). They have faced huge die-offs over temperature differences and toxicity levels in years past, indicating that they are part of a fragile environment, but they are currently going as strong as ever.

As evolution predicts, these creatures have lost abilities no longer useful to them. Whereas many of their salt water counterparts are painful sons-of-bitches, the stingers on these guys are closer to being cute than harmful. This, luckily, makes it possible to swim alongside the jellies (and since every article and paper I’ve found on them takes care to note that 15 meters below the surface is a heavy layer of hydrogen sulfide, I suppose I’ll do the same – the stuff can kill you).

Visiting this lake is definitely on my bucket list.

Thought of the day

The fact that we all have the same genetic building blocks strongly suggests a single point of origin for all of life. That we can trace our genetic heritage and cousinships in a hierarchical and expanding way which matches morphology, behaviors, and the fossil record helps to make the case for evolution one of the strongest cases for any theory in the history of science.

Natural selection is a serious problem for theism

Natural selection is the process by which different traits and, ultimately, alleles spread or shrink throughout a population over time. It is a key mechanism in evolution and an understanding of it is necessary to knowing anything important about life itself. It demonstrates how we can have such a long history with so many seemingly lucky ancestors, culminating in such a massive variety across the planet. But perhaps most importantly, it sheds light on some of our most fundamental questions about existence.

I’ve spoken in the past about Richard Lenksi’s E. coli experiment. He has been tracking a dozen different lineages of the bacteria for the past 25 years, carefully cataloging the genetic changes that take place and when they happen. What he has found is that mutations are often contingent, meaning that for Mutation #2 to happen, Mutation #1 is first needed. However, in his most interesting finding, it turns out that neither of these mutations will necessarily be useful at first. That is, they are neither advantageous nor deleterious, instead merely being neutral, as is so often the case. Yet they persist. It is only by chance, so it is a lucky persistence, but it happens. And, with time, Mutation #3 (or 4 or 5, etc) happens, and it is that mutation which is advantageous. Here natural selection goes to work, causing the new allele to near or reach fixation. But this does not happen in every lineage. Indeed, when Lenski re-runs his experiment using generations he had frozen earlier, he has found that sometimes the mutations all happen again, but more often they fail to occur. The reason is clear: there is nothing but chance that can maintain a neutral mutation. (This is why microsatellites are great for studying short-term generational changes, but not deep evolutionary time.)

I bring this up because Lenksi’s work crystallizes in experiment the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.

Gould went further, however, than us. No single trait, and certainly no entire species, is inevitable in evolution, he rightly said. Perhaps some features are more likely than others – the eye is said to have evolved independently 40 different times – but no specific feature (such as wings or bipedalism) can be firmly predicted. Indeed, Gould spent much of his time arguing that evolution drives not towards complexity or specificity, but rather diversity; life finds itself at many forks, but it never ‘knows’ which road it will take.

This presents a significant problem for theists. For the young Earth variety, the issues are glaring. That group of people is nothing but woefully ignorant, denying even the most obvious and established science. They don’t deserve any more of my time here. For the older Earth variety that opts for theistic evolution, however, the problems they face are merely buried just far enough away from mild, easy thinking to be ignorable for most. That is, they’ve admitted to the fact of evolution, but they are necessarily ignoring that if humans evolved just like everything else, there was a point where our ancestors weren’t human; we were no different from any other mammal in the distant past. (It is only time and space which allows us to define a species.) That destroys any argument that says, in the eyes of some deity, we might be more special than, say, a giraffe.

The counter to this, as per the Catholic Church and others, is to simply declare that we were infused with souls at some unknown point in our evolutionary history. This isn’t much of an answer: No member of a species gives birth to a different species; evolution is continuous. So to believe the theist’s argument, we must conclude that at some point in our ancestry, a mother with no soul gave birth to offspring that did have a soul. That is, one was not essentially human while, magically, the other was.

The one version of theism that gets around some of this is where it is declared that all of life is equally special, so it doesn’t matter that no particular species or even traits are inevitable. This, however, has its own problem. Namely, it makes the given deity (or deities) entirely superfluous. It’s no more a viable position than seeing a door blown inward from the wind and declaring that there was also a ghost pushing from the outside.

For me, I find it far easier to simply accept natural selection and its clear implications. I have no need to make seemingly comfortable lies comport with contradictory facts.

Darwin v Lincoln

As many may have noticed, today is the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Each was born in 1809 and each made a massive impact on the world. For Lincoln, he maintained the United States and freed millions. Darwin, however, had a much more worldwide impact. His theory of evolution proved to be the cornerstone of one of the most important branches of science; as Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Of course, this wasn’t all his theory did. Indeed, Darwin’s most emotional critics came from religious camps. If man evolved right along with all the other animals and organisms, they said, then we are no longer special. Unique, perhaps, but not special. On that point I believe they were and are right. Unfortunately, far too many people believe such a point is a valid basis for dismissing fact.

It’s no secret that most scientists are not religious. This includes biologists, in large part due to what Darwin had to tell us all. In fact, one reason many lay people reject religious dogma is because of evolution (amongst many other areas of science); science is a part of our culture and it influences our fundamental views about the world. This is huge.

With the importance of both Lincoln and Darwin in mind, I have to wonder who had the bigger impact. Surely most Americans will automatically say Lincoln, whether they be creationists or rational, but this isn’t a popularity contest. In terms of changes to world views, to the day-to-day lives of individuals, and to world cultures as a whole, my money is on Darwin.

How should we treat cloned Neanderthals?

Harvard geneticist George Church was recently interviewed by a German magazine where he said that we need to start talking about the ethical and other implications of cloning a Neanderthal. He said that, whereas the technological possibility is foreseeable in the relatively near future, we need to start the conversation today. Unfortunately, English-based media sensationalized his comments and falsely claimed that he was looking for a surrogate mother:

Harvard geneticist George M. Church was quoted in the Daily Mail as looking for an “adventurous woman” to serve as a surrogate for a “cloned cave baby.” The shocking headline spread quickly across the media with no small amount of help from major news aggregators like the Drudge Report…

“I’m certainly not advocating it,” Church told the Herald. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”…

Church added that he wasn’t even involved in the particular aspects of the Human Genome Project focused on Neanderthals. Nonetheless, he hopes to use the mistake made by the media for the greater good. “I want to use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology,” he said.

To compound the mistake made by the media, people like Arthur Caplan, writing for CNN, continues to spread falsehoods even after the correction has been made:

Despite a lot of frenzied attention to the intentionally provocative suggestion by a renowned Harvard scientist that new genetic technology makes it possible to splice together a complete set of Neanderthal genes, find an adventurous surrogate mother and use cloning to gin up a Neanderthal baby — it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

My beef is with the baseless accusation that Church was being intentionally provocative. Here is what he actually said:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?…

SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?

Church: Well, that’s another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.

In other words, the magazine asked him all these things. He gave pretty uncontroversial answers, even choosing to take a rather neutral stance when asked if we should clone a Neanderthal. I think the evidence is clear that not only was Church not being intentionally provocative, he was actually attempting to give benign answers.

At any rate, this all does raise the interesting question of how we would treat Neanderthals if we did clone them. Would we give them the same rights and protections? Would we develop a new application for the old scourge of apartheid? I’m not sure the answers to these questions, but I do have some input on how we should go about considering them.

Humans are awfully fond of talking about our special status in the animal kingdom. Indeed, many of us refuse to even consider ourselves animals, disregarding the affront to biology such a stance is. Of course, we have some good reasons for separating ourselves, at least in the context of morality and ethics. Though such practices, common across many taxa, are little more than game theory working itself out amongst genes and individuals, humans take it to another level. So while, for example, our ape cousins will show rudimentary understandings of right and wrong, we have far more complex rules for our society, rules that we can reason out and justify by way of our higher level of intelligence. We are different and that’s important.

How different, though, are Neanderthals? We know a fair amount about them, but they haven’t been around for 20 or 30 thousand years. No one has interacted with them, so a cloned baby would be an experiment in every sense of its life. So how different would it be? Would we have criteria established that said, ‘If the Neanderthal is different in these certain ways, it will not enjoy the same rights afforded everyone else under our laws’? I don’t know, but the concern is an interesting one because it raises the issue of why we think we’re so special.

Evolution is a continuous process. We are descended from species which were not human, but at no point did one species give birth to a brand new one. Every mother gives birth to offspring that are categorized in the same way she is. However, when enough time has passed, we’re given the luxury of defining different groups as species within this or that Genus under one or another Family. But look over the tape of evolution and everything eventually converges and lines blur. Just think about human evolutionary history: Back things up 100,000 years and we’re largely the same. How about 150,000? 300,000? 1,000,000? At some arbitrary point we pick, we’re going to start defining significant differences, but if we continually shrink the window of time, the differences start to disappear. (This is all a huge problem, in my view, for the Catholic or other theistic evolutionist who believes only humans have souls.) So from 500,000 years ago to 100,000 years ago, there will be notable change, but that change will be smaller between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. And the differences become less when we look at our history from 300,000 to 200,000. Keep going and we may be talking about how different our ancestors from 272,000 years ago were from our ancestors living 271,000 years ago. Forget that our investigations into the history of life can’t get that specific. What’s important is that we have to realize there is no line in the sand that says “Species A ends there and Species B begins here”.

So if we do decide that Neanderthals are less deserving of the rights given to humans, we have to admit that humans, at some point in our lineage, were also not deserving. That is, our intelligence and consciousness become more and more comparable to our cousin apes (and now extinct man-like cousins) as we go back in time; we eventually arrive to a point where we would not give our ancestors the same rights that we enjoy. That means we are not inherently special, and I think that’s a major blow to a lot of our assumptions. The supposedly humble Neanderthal shines light on our human arrogance.

Gigantopithecus

So here’s a neat picture:

Gigantopithecus

I don’t have much to add to this because there is already an excellent review of this creature, but I will note that our ancestors lived alongside these huge cousins of ours for about half a million years. Also, it is not Bigfoot.