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Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution
Written by Mike Noel   
Thursday, 31 July 2008

Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution

Despite the subtitle, I'm afraid that this book didn't actually solve the mysteries of evolution.  In fact, it didn't a fairly poor job of even trying to.  Most of the book revolved around a history of Darwinism from the middle of the 19th century till the late 20th century and an interesting narrative of how the fields of genetics and cellular biology arose.  At best the book, tried to show how some evidence can be interpreted with an evolutionary explanation.  While that's interesting, it certainly doesn't "solve the mystery" of evolution.  The book also suffered severely from a bad case of strawmanitis in that it characterized all who didn't "believe" in evolution to be mindless religious zealots who ignore scientific fact because it conflicts with their beliefs.  And finally, the book's coverage of australopithecenes did much more harm than good to the cause of evolution.

On to the first point.  This book provided great insight into the culture surrounding Darwin and the journey he travelled to arrive at the publication of his Theory of Evolution.  It was interesting to read about how he anticipated great resistance to his ideas and was therefore reluctant to publish them.  The book indicates that if it wasn't for the threat of another scientist getting the credit for the theory it is unlikely that Darwin would ever have published.  At times the book felt like it was playing a little fast and loose with facts for dramatic presentation.  Because of that I take some of the extra history stuff with a grain of salt.  But it was interesting.

The bulk of the book was in the explanation of basic genetics and cellular biology.  More than just describing the basics in these fields, it walked through how the currently held theories were discovered.  It was fascinating to read about how the different scientists were confronted with evidence that they didn't understand and were able to reason their way to find a solution.  Many times scientists "discovered" something years before they were able to actually find and identify the thing.  DNA is a good example of that.  Long before they were able to find DNA, they knew it had to exist simply because of way everything else worked.  By the time I got through with the biology section of the book I had a good idea of how DNA works (very very basic level).  I also had a ton of questions about how some of the behaviors described could have evolved.  Since the book was supposedly explaining that mystery, I would have expected to see of that explained here.  It wasn't.

As I mentioned earlier, the book stated that anyone who didn't believe in evolution was simply doing so out of a tenacious grip on mythological stories from the Bible.  Many times it was explained that anyone with even the smallest bit of intellectual ability would easily accept evolution as true based on the scientific evidence.  This is simply not true.  There are a large number of smart people, theists and atheists, who have a hard time accepting major portions of evolutionary theory.  They don't all agree on an alternative theory, but they all do reject evolution on the grounds that it does not fit the evidence.  It is unfortunate that this book cannot acknowledge and address those people. The fact that they are not included in the discussion means that either the authors are not aware of such people or they are unwilling to consider any thoughtful counter to the theory.  This undermines the credibility of the authors' ability to present an honest and objective discussion.

Throughout the book I was continually amazed at how well the scientists were able to predict things when they didn't have the evidence to back it up.  I strongly suspect that we are being affected by "hindsight is 20/20".  That is fine.  But when the authors began their discussion on the origin of man things started to fall apart.  In a nutshell, the authors first presented a "family tree" showing how all of the known fossils created this tree.  The authors' arguments were that this was the only possible, or reasonable, way to view the current evidence.

Then, new evidence would be revealed and the family tree would have to be redrawn.  I believe this happened three times before ending up at the final family tree that the book presented.  And, of course, resources outside of the book now indicate that the final picture presented in the book is still not correct. 

It is commendable that the authors' are willing to show their missteps along the way.  However, it is also telling of a flaw in their reasoning.  At each stage, with certain evidence, they proposed family tree that they felt was the best for the given evidence.  Curiously, when additional evidence was presented and a new explanation was developed, if that new explanation was back-mapped to the original evidence, it fit there better.  So why didn't the authors pick the new version first?  Well, that's where they are just shooting in the dark.  And I suspect people are still shooting in the dark about this.  If every new peice of evidence means you have to redo the whole explanation, it's hard to imagine that you are all that close to the correct answer.

Finally, the book was strongly influenced by the "circle of life" that I find in a lot of evolutionary arguments and discussions.  The australopithecene chapters were a very clear example of this.  As the authors were interpretting the evidence, they did so from a point of view that things evolved.  They assumed that skull #1 was older than skull #2 because they could see how one could have evolved from the other (and, then this aging information is passed back to the geologists who now can "fix" the date for other items found close by).  Using this knowledge they are able to layout the family tree.  Then, after laying out the family tree they step back and announce that their explanation proves evolution.  It's circular.  Assume the theory of evolution in order to interpret the data, then declare that the data proves the theory.  This is the evolutionary "circle of life".

There is much that is interesting about the evidence that scientists have found.  I really would like to see arguments that are not circular, take into account all of the evidence, and don't try to sweep under the rug any opposition.  Considering the emotional nature of this topic, I think it is going to be rare to find that.

 

 

Last Updated ( Friday, 01 August 2008 )