From the first cells to humans, the evolution of life has been a “snuggle for survival,” says Harvard professor Martin Nowak.
If “survival of the fittest” seems harsh, if animal documentaries “red in tooth and claw”1 make you queasy, if you have trouble reconciling Darwinian evolution with social ethics—Harvard’s director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Martin Nowak, can ease your pain. A feature on the “Evolution of Cooperation” in the July 2012 Scientific American explains, “People tend to think of evolution as a strictly dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. In fact, cooperation has been a driving force in evolution.”
But wait, aren’t “the secrets of evolution death and time”?2 Well, yes, that too. But Martin Nowak has worked out mathematically that “looking out for number one” sometimes means looking out for your neighbor. And though humans are pros at self-serving cooperation, Nowak is convinced cooperation has been a universal driving force at every level of complexity in evolutionary history from genes to us.
“This universality suggests that cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life on earth from the beginning,” Nowak explains. “Moreover, there is one group in which the effects of cooperation have proved especially profound: humans. Millions of years of evolution transformed a slow, defenseless ape into the most influential creature on the planet, a species capable of inventing a mind-boggling array of technologies that have allowed our kind to plumb the depths of the ocean, explore outer space and broadcast our achievements to the world in an instant. We have accomplished these monumental feats by working together. Indeed, humans are the most cooperative species—supercooperators, if you will.”
Nowak presents several scenarios illustrating ways individuals practically work out when the most personally advantageous action involves helping another. “Direct reciprocity” is the idea that helping another may get you some help in return. In other instances, individuals—whether yeast cells or people—may ally to out-compete unallied individuals, making those inclined toward alliances more likely to survive and reproduce.
“Kin selection” offers one of “the most immediately intuitive mechanisms for the evolution of selflessness.” Kin selection is based on the idea that “individuals make sacrifices for their relatives because those relatives share their genes. Thus, although one may be reducing one’s own reproductive fitness by assisting a relative in need, one is still fostering the spread of those genes the helper shares.” But Nowak contends kin selection doesn’t fully explain altruism.3
“Group selection” goes beyond kin selection. For instance, “indirect reciprocity” involves helping in hope of gaining a reputation as a valuable member of the group so that the helper will himself be helped another day. Nowak invokes Darwin to validate “group selection,” quoting from Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man: “a tribe including many members who … were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”
Nowak admits, “Biologists have … argued fiercely over this idea that natural selection can favor cooperation to improve the reproductive potential of the group.” (Next week News to Note will explore the latest battle in this controversy.) Nevertheless, Nowak is confident the proof is in the math. “Mathematical modeling by researchers, including me,” he says, “has helped show that selection can operate at multiple levels, from individual genes to groups of related individuals to entire species.”
And what enables humans to be “supercooperators”? Language. “Only humans have full-blown language,” Nowak explains, “which allows us to share information about everyone.”
Nowak bases his authoritative pronouncements on the mathematics of game theory. Using game theory he simulates how individuals make decisions. As participants suffer the ill effects of blatantly selfish choices and benefit from more cooperative decisions, they eventually trend toward the cooperative.
Humans don’t behave in a random fashion, of course. Nowak notes people are more likely to be generous when they are being watched and more likely to cooperate when convinced of the right-ness of what they’re being asked to do. Nowak closes on a “hopeful” note: “Evolutionary simulations indicate that cooperation is intrinsically unstable; periods of cooperative prosperity inevitably give way to defective [uncooperative] doom. And yet the altruistic spirit always seems to rebuild itself; our moral compasses somehow realign.”
Evolutionary dogma is an attempt to explain life without God. But mathematical simulations and psychological scenarios based on selective probabilities and human nature do not constitute proof of an unobservable evolutionary past. No amount of cooperation between cells can create new information to build multicellular organisms. Neither can observations of the “good” and “bad” sides of human nature truly explain how it got that way.
Evolutionists can invoke the tooth-and-claw survival-of-the-fittest bit to explain the evil side of human nature. But most people don’t like to think of themselves as bad. Like Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) said in the movie by the same name, “No man alive likes to be called high-smelling and low-down.”4 Nowak’s kinder, gentler evolutionary dogma—bearing the appearance of authority accorded to anything mathematical—attempts to use evolution to explain human nature’s “good side.”
How do we know cooperation is “good”? How do we know anything is “good”? From Nowak’s point of view, cooperation—our “altruistic spirit,” our “moral compass”—is desirable because it promotes survival and human progress.
God Himself, the Creator against whom man originally rebelled, tells the real story of how man’s selfish nature came to be in Genesis chapter 3. And as to the “good side” of human nature—according to God’s standards, “
There is none who does good, no not one” (Romans 3:12). Compared to God, no person succeeds at being good. Compared to God, every person on his best day is guilty of tainted motives and sins for which no good deeds can atone.
In fact, only God—the Creator of mankind—can actually define what is “good.” Without the authoritative standard God provides in His Word, pronouncements about morality and goodness are the opinions of sinful fallible people, often distorting the conscience—the “moral compass”—that according to Romans 2:14–15 God has placed in us. God our Creator tells us the truth about ourselves. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23). And the underlying selfishness Nowak’s game theory demonstrates is a symptom of man’s sinful nature, not the producer of his moral one.
Nowak said linguistic ability enables humans to cooperate effectively. How true! Language—a gift from God—has enabled cooperating humans to accomplish much. The historical account of the Tower of Babel demonstrates this truth. A common language (Genesis 11:1) enabled post-Flood generations to cooperate in their rebellion against God. Their common language enabled them to be “supercooperators”! As recorded in Genesis 11:6, God said, “
Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” And so God, to prevent them from cooperating to accomplish even greater evil, confused their language.
Mathematical descriptions of human nature cannot explain human nature. And self-serving selflessness cannot save us. God’s Word tells us the true history of our past, the real origin of human society, the truth about our sinful nature, the genuine consequences of our rebellion against Him, and—most important of all—the only solution to the problems of guilt, suffering, and death—not good works, but the grace of Jesus Christ.
Aged Australian Aboriginal art discovered at Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter.
In the Arnhem Land plateau area of in Australia’s Northern Territory, in a place so remote it is best reached by helicopter, is Narwala Gabarnmang, the “Sistine Chapel of rock art sites.” Discovered during a 2006 survey sponsored by the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation, Narwala Gabarnmang is a huge open rock shelter. The cave’s ceiling is adorned with hundreds of rock paintings.
“Rock art is notoriously difficult to date and although we know that people had occupied this site at least 45,000 years ago we did not know how old the art was,” says University of South Queensland’s Bryce Barker. Rock paintings are difficult to date because they are often painted with minerals and contain no organic material for carbon dating. Therefore, Barker’s discovery of a charcoal rock drawing last year was particularly exciting.
Carbon-14 analysis dates this piece of Narwala Gabarnmang art to 28,000 years. That beats the previous Australian rock art record held by the Bradshaw paintings in Kimberley. “The Bradshaws are often talked about as being the oldest rock art in Australia, but the oldest firm date for them is 16,000–17,000 years taken from a wasp nest covering the art,” Barker explains.7 “Some rock art has previously been dated older than 28,000 but there are problems with [those examples].”7 However, Barker adds, unlike the Bradshaws, the art he found at Narwala Gabarnmang has been “unequivocally dated,”7 assigning it an age in the same ballpark as the bears painted in France’s Chauvet cave (though those dates are also disputed8).
“It puts Aboriginal people up there as among the most advanced people in human evolution,” Barker explains. “Some of the earliest achievements by modern humans were happening in this country.”7
Evidence supporting a high level of cultural achievement early in Australian Aboriginal history supports other findings from Narwala Gabarnmang. Jawoyn Homeland Project archaeologists have also found a stone axe with a ground edge. “Carbon dating around the entire piece returned a date of 35,500 years, making it the oldest of its type in the world,”9 according to the Jawoyn Association’s website. Barker points out that such “stone tool technology” elsewhere in the world is associated with much later dates. Furthermore, carbon dating of charcoal from the cave where Barker found the charcoal rock drawing has revealed “Aboriginal people were visiting the site more than 45,000 years ago.”9
Such dating methods are based on assumptions that cannot be proven. In the case of carbon-14 dating, one such assumption is that the plants buried in strata deep in the geologic record had the same ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 as those today. However, there is no way to know if the production and atmospheric concentration of carbon-14 were the same when those plants were buried. In fact, one factor that distinguished the world in which those plants were buried from the world today is the mass of the biosphere. Based on the vast quantity of fossil fuels buried in the earth, the world prior to the global Flood may be safely envisioned as having a far larger biosphere (many more plants and animals) than that of the post-Flood world. Massive destruction by the Flood would have radically altered that. Therefore, because scientists normally do not account for the much larger biosphere in the pre-Flood world and assume the proportion of carbon-14 to carbon-12 has always been the same, they calculate dates much higher than the dates calculated on the basis of the Bible’s chronology. (Be sure to read more about the strengths, weaknesses, and corrections of carbon-14 dates at A Creationist Puzzle.)
The shadow of an additional bit of fallacious reasoning haunts Barker’s “unequivocally dated” art. The charcoal was carbon-dated at 28,000 years, but the charcoal and the drawing are not necessarily the same age. The wood used to make the charcoal could have been substantially older than the artwork.
Thus, while we would discount the extreme absolute ages for the cave art, ground-edge stone axe, and charcoal, we certainly do not dispute the claim that Australian Aborigines were capable of advanced abstract thinking, genuine artwork, and technology comparable to or exceeding that of indigenous ancient people the world over.
All people, including Australian Aborigines, are descended from Noah’s family. After God confused the languages of people at the Tower of Babel, in the years following the global Flood of about 2350 BC, groups of people dispersed through the world. Each group surely possessed knowledge of some current technology in addition to their new language. Thus, we expect to see evidence of intelligent people scattered all over the world, including these paintings in Narwala Gabarnmang and cave paintings in Spain (like the record-breaking cave art described last week in News to Note, June 23, 2012). Aborigines were not at the head of the human evolutionary pack but were, like groups of people all over the world, using their intelligence and their skills to rebuild civilizations after the Flood and migration from Babel.
Australia’s Aborigines, furthermore, have been historic victims of racially driven devastation. Such abuse began with European colonization. Later, in the 19th century, on the basis of Darwinian philosophy, Aborigines were hunted for their scientific value. Colonial policies eventually gave way to more protective paternalistic policies but continued for many years to treat the Australian Aborigines disrespectfully. Thankfully, those policies have now ended. Yet how much Aboriginal suffering would have been averted through the years, both pre- and post-Darwin, if those who interacted with the original indigenous people of Australia had acknowledged the wisdom spoken by the apostle Paul in Acts 17:24–31. God our Creator “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” Had they viewed Aborigines with biblical wisdom, they would have known they owed them the love of Christ and the knowledge of His gospel.
Big bugs met birds and bit the dust.
Super-sized flying insects are not just science fiction fodder: the fossil record documents insects with wingspans up to 70 cm (28 inches). (Not all insects got that big. There were plenty of small insects too, and some—like cockroaches, thankfully—never grew to mammoth proportions!) Why some insects grew so big and why they don’t anymore are both explored in a study by U.C.–Santa Cruz earth scientist Matthew Clapham published in the 4 June Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Theories vary as to why some insects grew so large. “Gigantism has been linked to hyperoxic conditions because oxygen concentration is a key physiological control on body size, particularly in groups like flying insects that have high metabolic oxygen demands,”10 writes Clapham. Atmospheric models suggest oxygen concentrations in the atmosphere once reached as high as 30 percent, compared to the present-day normal of 21 percent.
Clapham and graduate student Jered Karr report they compared wingspans of 10,500 fossilized insects to atmospheric oxygen levels over geologic time since the Cambrian explosion. “Maximum insect size does track oxygen surprisingly well as it goes up and down for about 200 million years,” Clapham said. “Then right around the end of the Jurassic and beginning of the Cretaceous period, about 150 million years ago, all of a sudden oxygen goes up but insect size goes down. And this coincides really strikingly with the evolution of birds.”
The atmospheric oxygen suggested by the “Geocarbsulf” computer model thus appeared to partially correlate with data from the fossil record. However, the flying reptile pterosaurs conventionally dated at 230 million years ago failed to demonstrate strong correlation with insect size. According to ScienceDaily, “There were larger insects in the Triassic than in the Jurassic, after pterosaurs appeared. But a 20-million-year gap in the insect fossil record makes it hard to tell when insect size changed.” There was also a more recent portion of the geologic column across which insect sizes could not be tracked. ScienceDaily reports, “Another transition in insect size occurred more recently at the end of the Cretaceous period, between 90 and 65 million years ago. Again, a shortage of fossils makes it hard to track the decrease in insect sizes during this period.” Clapham believes any of several factors could have been responsible for the scarcity of fossilized flying insects from this time, including the evolution of bats and “the continuing specialization of birds” as they became better predators, contributing to decimation and extinction of the giant insects. “The early birds were not very good at flying,” he says. “But by the end of the Cretaceous, birds did look quite a lot like modern birds.” Clapham suspects that the evolution of flying birds made maneuverability a survival advantage for insects and favored smaller insects.
The “Geocarbsulf” model for estimating atmospheric oxygen over long ages is based on the expected atmospheric impact of vegetative biomass and of oxidizable minerals exposed to oxygen. Evolutionists presume there was a time—the Great Oxidation Event—when newly evolved photosynthesizing organisms finally oxygenated earth’s atmosphere. Balanced against oxygen produced by the increasing biomass of photosynthesizers is the presumed amount of exposed oxidizable minerals. Mineral exposure would be affected by processes such as volcanic activity, tectonic shifting, and weathering. According to Peter Ward, author of Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere, “Unfortunately there is no direct way to measure past oxygen levels. … Indirect methods based on an understanding of the relative ability of various minerals to undergo chemical changes in the presence or absence of oxygen have been used to infer relative oxygen levels, as have indirect methods based on biological evidence.”11
The “Geocarbsulf” model depends on a geologic, biologic, and temporal history of the earth in which uniformitarian assumptions govern the rates at which changes occur. The timeline for this history depends on unverifiable assumptions by which the geologic column is dated. Such a model ignores the drastic changes the global Flood wrought in the geologic and biologic factors affecting atmospheric oxygen.
God created the world about 6,000 years ago, supplying it with an oxygen atmosphere early in Creation Week. Plants would have been producing oxygen on Day Three and animals—including birds—would have needed it to breathe by Day Five. The global Flood and its aftermath may well have altered our atmosphere in some way. The Flood destroyed much oxygen-producing plant material. It remodeled the earth’s surface thereby changing the minerals exposed to the air. The Flood and its aftermath also altered the depth and temperature of the oceans thus changing the habitat of oxygen-producing phytoplankton as well as the oxygen-dissolving capacity of the water. Not only were these processes in chaotic disarray during the Flood year, but in the post-Flood world the changing climate could have continued to affect the atmosphere for many years.
If the pre-Flood atmosphere differed from our own, higher oxygen levels could have been a factor facilitating large insect size. Milder pre-Flood seasonal variations could have also permitted insect varieties with gigantic potential to reach their full size. In the more extreme seasons of the post-Flood world, gigantic varieties of insects may have been weeded out of the gene pool as those reaching maturity quickly would have had a reproductive advantage. However, the fossil record of insects and birds reflects their burial, primarily during the Flood, and bears no relationship to their supposed evolutionary appearance in history or to their extinction over millions of years.
In the beginning, batteries begat life?
Where are all the aliens? If life evolved here, wouldn’t it inevitably have evolved in lots of places in the universe? If not intelligent beings like us, then surely something simpler. After all, water, chemicals, energy, time, and habitable conditions are all it takes, right? In pondering the glaring absence of any actual evidence of extraterrestrial life, Nick Lane—writing about the evolution of life from chemicals—says, “Looking at a vital ingredient for life—energy—suggests that simple life is common throughout the universe, but it does not inevitably evolve into more complex forms such as animals.”
Lane believes energy-acquisition was key to the evolution of life. Living systems are powered by “proton gradients” in which protons moving across membranes produce usable energy, like little batteries. Lane therefore maintains undersea batteries cradled the first life. Non-volcanic alkaline hydrothermal vents form form on the sea bottom “as seawater percolates down into the electron-dense rocks . . . such as the iron-magnesium mineral olivine.” Resulting chemical reactions produce hydrogen gas. Cracks in rock then allow minerals in the water to precipitate and form towering vents once able to generate life. Recalling geologist Michael Russell’s theory of the origin of life, Lane says these porous towers are full of “cell-like spaces enclosed by flimsy mineral walls” where metallic minerals could catalyze conversion of CO2 into organic molecules.” And such life-generating chemical reactions would have been powered by the battery-like ion gradients created by acidic and alkaline fluids in and around the spaces in these towers.
Having now confidently explained where the energy came from to power the creation of the original organic molecules, Lane leaps over the troubling problems of how random chemicals could organize themselves into functional structures, build a code and coding system to store information for their own design, and transmit that code to future generations. Diving into the difficulty of moving from prokaryotic bacteria-like cells to eukaryotic cells, the presumed ancestral cell of all complex life forms, Lane is certain endosymbiosis explains how cells acquired the extra energy to become eukaryotic.
Endosymbiosis is the idea that prokaryotic cells engulfed by other cells became mitochondria, which powered primitive cells on their evolutionary journey into the future. “It’s hard to imagine any other way of getting around the energy problem,” Lane writes, “and we know it happened just once on Earth because all eukaryotes descend from a common ancestor.” However, he considers successful endosymbiosis a “fluke” whereas the original evolution of simple life from sea-batteries was inevitable. Therefore, he concludes, we’ll find simple life on other planets—the recipe’s ingredients being common in space—but probably not much complex life.
Observable biological laws demonstrate life never randomly emerges from nonliving elements, but Lane writes, “We know it happened.” How do we know? Well, because we’re here, so how else could we have gotten here? When God is rejected as the originator of all life, the evolutionist must figure out how life came to be. Ion gradients and organic molecules can be present in non-living systems. But ion gradients and organic molecules still lack the information required to organize into something alive. Endosymbiotic theory also has a number of problems. Read about them in “Non-Evolution” of the Appearance of Mitochondria and Plastids in Eukaryotes: Challenges to Endosymbiotic Theory.
The Bible does not say that God didn’t create life elsewhere in space. However, “
without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3). Therefore, if life were to be indisputably found on another world, its existence would not confirm molecules-to-man evolution. Such life would simply demonstrate God’s power to create life where He chooses.
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