Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Monkey's Uncle

Today's nominee for stupidest thing ever said on television: this, perpetrated by Larry King on Tuesday's Larry King Live:

All right, hold on. Dr. Forrest, your concept of how can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?
Today's nominee for saddest fact about the American education system: there are people around who consider this a serious argument. I saw one such in a blog comment thread yesterday:

Though it may hurt your eyes to read it, evolution is also an unproven theory . . . . It really is as simple as, "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"
To demonstrate the utter idiocy of these comments, let's try out some equivalents:

  1. If my ancestors came from Europe, why are there still Europeans?
  2. If humans evolved, why are there kumquats?
The first is evident nonsense because, of course, the various migrations of Europeans to North America didn't involve every European. Some stayed behind, and their descendants persisted in being European. Likewise, evolution of a new species needn't involve every descendant of the original population. If the population is physically divided for some reason, one group may evolve into a new species while the other remains relatively unchanged. This is known as the allopatric ("other homeland") model of speciation, and it (or the more inclusive reproductive isolation, which also encompasses non-geographic means of separation) is the primary mechanism of speciation invoked by modern evolutionary theory. The idea is even older than that, however, since Darwin himself discussed the allopatric diversification of Galápagos finches in The Origin of Species.

Of course, Larry King may be excused for not having learned about evolutionary theory (modern or otherwise) in school, since his school days date back to the post-"Monkey Trial", pre-Sputnik period when evolution of any kind was largely absent from science textbooks:

Publishers all across the nation took alarm from the Scopes trial and began a very efficient purge of Darwin from high school texts. [Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics]
But here he is hosting a discussion of evolution and Intelligent Design on national television. Couldn't he have done some background reading?

Or, more to the point, couldn't he have done some thinking? If there's any logic to the "why are there still monkeys" question at all, it's that evolution can't increase the number of species in the world. Otherwise the obvious response is "first a new species of monkeys arose, and then this species evolved into humans". So both King and the blogger are committed to the proposition that evolution is falsified not only by the coexistence of monkeys and humans, but also by the existence of multiple monkey species, or of multiple species of any type of animal, or indeed by the existence of more than one living species on the whole planet.

So, if humans evolved, why are there kumquats? Hmm?

Anyone who claims to find this a serious objection to evolutionary theory has forfeited any right to be taken seriously. It really is that simple.

via Atrios