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The Bogus Logic Of The Beak Of The Finch Essay, Research Paper
The Bogus Logic of The Beak
People who have served in the Armed Forces may be familiar with the expression, “If you can’t dazzle then with your brilliance, baffle them with your baloney.” The Beak of the Finch uses such laughable logic, it is remarkable that anyone would believe it. The book does such a terrible job of presenting a case for evolution and history, that the only logical conclusion is that the book’s true intent is to disprove it.
Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. ISBN 0679400036.
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.” –Thoreau, Walden
This book claims to be about evolution, centered in the location made famous by Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands. I read this book on the recommendation of a good friend who knows I am interested in birds and thought I might get something out of it. Indeed, the few parts of the book actually about the Gouldian Finches of the Galapagos Islands are fascinating. The book records in detail some of the trials the Dr. Peter Grant family endured in studying these birds on a hot volcanic rock. However, the writers and editors of the book avoid simple logic and put a spin on history that is misleading. The facts and logic presented in The Beak of the Finch really make the book’s author out to be a closet creationist.
It just so happened that at the same time I read this book, I was reading The Storm Petrel and the Owl of Athena by Louis Halle. Half of The Storm Petrel is on the bird life of the Shetland Islands, another isolated natural system. Halle, though an evolutionist, devotes a whole chapter on how the Shetlands and other islands conserve species. (Halle. 1970, 155ff.) Where species have changed their habits, it is most often due to adaptation to humanity. He compares the wild starlings, house sparrows, and rock doves found on the Shetlands with the more domesticated versions of these birds found on the continents–and to some degree even in the main village of the Shetlands. The island birds are more like their original wild forebears. I mention this now because it will come back to haunt us later.
By the first thirty or so pages I had found two logical fallacies and at least one historical inaccuracy in The Beak of the Finch. The fallacies were significant. The historical point was minor, but could be misleading. The fallacies would continue through the book.
Page 10 says “Evolutionists are watching life evolve” on different islands. Well, not on the Shetlands, if Halle’s observations are accurate. One reason given is that islands are “a closed system.” I am not sure how closed any place on earth is any more; however, the Grants (the scientist couple doing the research reported by The Beak) were certainly careful to keep their little island as closed as possible. They washed themselves carefully, watched for any alien seeds they might bring, and so on. The great irony is that after twenty five years of observing, the net result is no change: Individual variation from year to year, surely, but nothing even remotely approaching one species turning into something else.
The Problem with Using Breeders for Analogies
Page 30 describes the “law of succession” (not plant or forest succession). This is adjunct to evolution. Is it truly a law? Can it be observed? Can it be repeated experimentally? Well, he says, Darwin showed that breeders can produce varieties of breeds of dogs and pigeons. Both Darwin and Weiner spend a lot of time on pigeons.
There are several problems with this. One, breeders are outside intelligent operators. They are not natural forces. Second, and what will prove to be most significant, they still breed pigeons. The pigeons never become another species, regardless of the exotic traits they display. They are still pigeons. Even Darwin backer Sir Charles Lyell noted, “There is no good evidence of spontaneous generation, and breeders know only too well that they cannot change one species into another.” (Ruse, 1979, 81)1
Now Darwin suggested that at some point perhaps species could become something else. He was speculating. He used pigeon fanciers as an analogy for the forces of nature. Page 30 says it was an analogy. There is a problem with using analogies for science. They can be useful to explain things, but analogy is not the scientific method (inductive reasoning). Darwin would write that “old Aristotle” was his “god.” (Loomis, 1943, xxxii) While Aristotle did write about logic, he mostly used analogy when observing nature. Here is one quick example: Winds shake the air, earthquakes shake the earth, therefore earthquakes are caused by underground winds. (Meteorology, 2.8.23ff) Whenever you argue from analogy, you must be certain that the two items being compared are truly comparable and that the similarity of one feature truly means a similarity in another.
We have a right to question whether pigeon breeders, or dog breeders, bean growers, etc. are behaving in a manner that nature does. We also must ask the question whether a visible similarity (Weiner’s definition of species) means common ancestry. I tell the story of when I caddied. There was another caddie who had red hair, a round face, and freckles like me. We were about the same height and had a similar build. Once when I was caddying, my golfer said to me, “I had your brother the last time I played golf.” Well, Chris Murphy was not my brother. We were not related at all. Just because we had some physical similarities did not mean we had a common ancestor. The argument by analogy continues for some time in the book. Yet these two questions about breeders and analogies are never addressed. The author also misses the obvious point–those fancy pigeons are still pigeons. This analogy hardly appears like a “law” of science.
Differences Among Individuals Not the Same as Transitional Forms
The book notes on page 40 that Darwin himself asked, “Why are there not transitional forms?” Darwin’s answer was that they had died off. The next question that follows logically is perhaps relevant here. Why are there not more fossils of transitional forms? That unanswerable question is why Niles Eldridge, Stephen Jay Gould, and others came up with the “punctuated equilibrium” theory (a.k.a. the “hopeful monster” theory) that there were sudden massive genetic changes which produced new species. Indeed, some fossils thought to be transitional have been proven otherwise. When I was in college we were taught that man evolved from Australopithecus. Now, if the Leakeys are to be believed, we find that Australopithecus and Homo were alive at the same time. The January 1998 issue of Scientific American describes an ongoing discussion of whether or not “Neanderthal Man” is a human ancestor. (Wong, 1998) Regular bird fossils have also been found at the same level as Archaeopteryx. As we shall see, the fossil record shows extinction rather than transition. And extinction is an argument against natural selection producing new species.
Time and time again the book tells of individual variation among finches. The average person would not notice these differences. The Grants noticed. Some of the subtle differences in bill thickness could mean the difference between survival and death. The Fortis finch, the main subject of the Grants’ study, with a slightly narrower bill had an advantage in good growing years because the more general bill could eat a variety of available seeds. One with a thicker bill would do better in dry seasons when the only available seeds were those survivors with thicker hulls that the smaller bill could not crack.
We note individual differences among humans, too. But just because there are individual differences does not mean that they evolve into something else. Individuals are just different. Let’s “celebrate diversity” and acknowledge individual differences.
Darwinism as Neither Proven Nor Scientific
Page 52 has another wild statement that challenges logic. “Darwin himself never tried to produce experimental confirmation of this particular point [that individual variation led to changes into new species]. It is at once extremely logical and extremely hard to prove.”
Hmm! I let that statement speak for itself. The author does not demonstrate the logic of it–probably not because it is hard, but because it is impossible. Perhaps, too, I am beginning to suspect that the author is not familiar with rules of logic.
Note two things about that statement. One, no experimentation. That means no scientific method. Therefore Darwin was not in the strict sense being scientific. Two, the logic on how natural selection causes new species is very difficult. In fact, the author does not even try to show it.
If There Is No Net Change, Doesn’t That Disprove Evolution?
For a number of pages in what is really the core of the book, the author describes how the Fortis Finches of the island specialize according to subtle differences in beak size during dry years. As a result, several strains appear. However, in wet years, the strains interbreed and the net result over a period of time is no change!
This, of course, is exactly the opposite of what the theory of evolution would predict. As a result, after about page 80 or 90, the rest of the book is devoted to a literary subterfuge to try to convince the reader otherwise in spite of the evidence. The kindest thing I can say is that the author is preaching to the converted. By page 81 the author says this is “evolution in action,” yet there is nothing about new species. The Gouldian Finches are still Gouldian Finches. Indeed the alternating natural forces keep them from changing. The author admits on page 106 that “reversals of fortune” are common. What does that mean? Change goes in various directions. Survivors in a recent generation can be more like a distant generation than the parental generation. What is the net result? No change, hence no evolution!
The author tells of the stratification of guppies according to the type of stream bed they are found in. Again, somehow this is supposed to show evolution, but instead it shows stabilization. The guppies are still guppies. There are individual variations, certainly, and some individuals have a better chance to survive in certain environments, but they do not become something else.
This demonstrates the “dirty secret” of natural selection. Natural selection is generally conservative. It preserves species, it does not make new ones. This has always been the scientific criticism of Darwin since he and Wallace first published their theories. The examples that The Beak of the Finch use really show the same thing–that natural selection is conservative. It does not speak of the origin of species as much as it does the preservation of species.
Darwin’s Logic in the First Half of His Title
Darwin’s book’s full title was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. If we look at the first clause of the title we can see that there are really three parts to Darwin’s logic. One is that species exist. Species are Darwin’s given. Second, Darwin tries to demonstrate that species adapt over time to changes in the environment. This is what he calls “natural selection.” Third, Darwin then tries to make the connection that these natural adaptations result in the formation of new, discrete species. Or as he put it in his title, species originate by means of this natural selection. There is also the uniformitarian implication that these changes are subtle and gradual and take a long time to have a visible effect. Hence, the earth is old, and Lyell’s “anti-diluvialism” or anti-catastrophism best explains the geological record. We will look at the second clause of the title later.
The Beak of the Finch is one of a number of studies which show that subtle changes within species can occur in just a few generations when environmental circumstances change. For the sake of argument we will call this “natural selection.” The next step in Darwin’s theory seems to be the most significant–that these changes will eventually result in new species. The results recorded in The Beak of the Finch appear to be saying just the opposite of this. The net change over time is nil or insignificant. And if there are any changes, they are conservative–they preserve the present species, they do not mutate the species into something else.
A Few More Questionable Quotations
I like this line on page 131: “The opposition [to Darwinism] arises, as Darwin himself observed, not from what reason dictates but from the limits of what the imagination can accept.” I will let that statement speak for itself. Reason and observation do not explain evolution. We can only imagine it. Is it unreasonable and imaginary?
Page 144 also states another problem. It explains that “Darwin’s thesis predicts the general absence of competition.” Yet the observations of the Grants in particular show lots of competition for space and food in the small island territory. In addition, the author explains, because there should be no competition, evolution will usually be unobserved! If it is unobserved then how do we know it happens? Science and the scientific method require observation.
At the very least, this means that Darwinian evolution will always be a theory. Indeed, after a quarter of a century on the Galapagos, the Grants’ evidence does demonstrate that actual evolution is not observed. Here the author is explaining why Darwinism cannot be proved, how the Grants’ observations show things that Darwin said would not happen, and yet the author still sounds like an advocate of Darwin. Doesn’t that sound like blind faith?
The Irrelevant Crossbill Experiment
Page 182 contains one experiment, but it has nothing to do with evolution. Perhaps its an example of analogy gone wild. The author describes experiments done with the bird known as a crossbill. Crossbills have crossed bills which enable them to reach into pine cones and extract the seeds. Someone took a group of crossbills and clipped the crossed portion of their bills so that they could no longer open pine cones. The birds could eat other seed put out for them. The bills grew back. Then they were able to eat pine seeds again. It makes sense, but does it have anything to do with evolution?
While it does show how bill shape determines a bird’s ability to eat certain foods, I still have not figured out what that has to do with evolution. There have been many other experiments where scientists removed or altered body parts of creatures. They could not function normally in most cases until that part grew back. All it tells us is that most body parts have a function. Perhaps it does illustrate the utility of bill structure, but there is nothing to do with heredity or genes in this one. The book states that this exercise with the crossbills refutes the anti-evolutionist book Darwin on Trial, but since the experiment has nothing to do with Darwinian heredity, it is impossible to see the relevance.
Ultimately, the author is stuck and he knows it. He wants to believe in evolution, yet all the evidence he has been presenting is really showing that natural selection is conservative. What can he do? Talk of finches, guppies, and crossbills: interesting but largely irrelevant.
Self-Contradiction and Laughable Logic
The author admits he is lost on page 192. This quotation sums up the shaky ground he has found himself on. The amazing illogic of it should be obvious even to a ten year old:
“Fortis has done a lot of evolving just to stay in place!”
As Shakespeare would say:
“That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.63)
I almost laughed out loud when I read that sentence. The finches changed so much that they didn’t change at all? Evolution is proven because it doesn’t happen?
A recent review in Scientific American complains that science in America on the decline because relativistic thinking has crept into science, that “science is a subjective human construction, like art or music.” (Morrison, 1997, 114) The article blames the influence of social science which does not take seriously “the ultimate importance of objective facts.” (Morrison, 1997, 117) Clearly, if the above passage reflects contemporary scientific thinking, then at least some of the blame is the responsibility of science itself, not just sociology.
I find it even more remarkable that a book which such nonsense as the above passage could win a nonfiction Pulitzer Prize. One of the three panelists which made the final selection is a writing teacher at a well-known technical university. Would he accept such stuff if one of his students wrote that in a paper? One of the other panelists is an editor of a well-known high-circulation magazine. Would she allow such thinking in an article that she edited? (”1995 Pulitzer Prizes,” 1997) Such a prize is usually given to the best in its field. If this is the best evolution can do, evolution is in sad shape. Even the old agnostic himself, T.H. Huxley, wrote:
“Science is simply common sense at its best; that is rigidly accurate in obervation and merciless to fllacy in logic.” (Gould, 16)
A few years ago in article in Natural History magazine, biogeographer and evolutionary apologist Jared Diamond wrote of a genetic study done of Jews. He noted that some genetic changes had taken place in the Jewish Diaspora of the last two thousand years in Europe. He also noted that some inherited traits such as fingerprints and certain blood antibodies had not changed. In many ways European Jews, in spite of their outward appearance, are genetically closer to Arabs in the Near East (where the Jews came from) than to Europeans with whom they have lived for two millennia or more. Diamond then very emphatically stated that this–along with the sainted peppered moths–proves that evolution is a fact [his italics]. (Diamond, 1993, 19) I am not sure how. After two thousand years and thousands of miles migrated, the genotypes of this population are still identifiable. Is it the same kind of logic–that they evolve by not changing?
I should really stop there. At first I thought the author just thought all his readers were dense. But I get the impression he really believes this stuff! One person I shared this with simply passed it off because Weiner was writing for a “popular audience.” Logic is not important for the mass of people? Is science the new priesthood which the “laity” must trust blindly? The aristocracy to which the serfs owe total allegiance?
“Natural Selection” Stabilizes, It Does Not Cause New Species
On page 227 the author even speaks of “stabilizing selection.” Ah! What is this? A scientific oxymoron? Not if you are a Darwinist. You see, that phrase illustrates precisely the main argument against Darwin from the beginning, before Huxley and Wilberforce turned the whole discussion into a sideshow. Natural selection stabilizes species, it does not change them.
The book even shares another little secret of evolution: “Evolutionists are forever dividing and subdividing into schismatic sects.” (231). This is what began to make me personally doubt evolution in college. The Anthropology, Biology, and Sociology classes all taught it, but they didn’t agree on much and even criticized the others’ interpretation of it. There was no common ground except a materialist bias. It did not strike me as very objective.
The author then describes a number of species with very short generations. Two that he focuses on are a type of fruit fly and the human intestinal bacteria. The most he can say about the fruit fly–introduced into areas where it was not native–is that it may be diverging into new species. (233) This is after he criticized the book Darwin on Trial for using the word may. (182) If it is good for the goose
Interestingly, the book documents one really long-term change among Gouldian Finches on page 240 and thereabouts. The Galapagos Islands are now densely populated in some places. Like the rock doves, house sparrows, and starlings of Eurasia and North America, they have adjusted to human habitation. They are learning to eat scraps and seeds from people. The various types of finches which before were distinguished by differences in bills are becoming “a hybrid swarm” in towns. They are changing, but this is not due to natural forces, but due to man–more like the pigeon fanciers. Even here, though, natural selection is working not to change the species, but preserve it. The various strains are coming together to survive. This is the same phenomenon Halle (1970) observed on the Shetlands as he compared the village starlings, sparrows, and rock doves with those in remote areas. This also is the same phenomenon observed among the Lake Victoria cichlids–traditionally seen as a model for evolution like the Galapagos finches. These fish display highly specialized races in this large but isolated African lake. Within ten years after the introductin of a predatory Nile perch species, we read that observers noticed “a kind of hybrid that seems to display a resistance to the perch.” (Trachtman, 119) This reviewer called this phenomenon an irony. Well, irony is wonderful in drama and literature–something unexpected happens. However, when an irony happens in a scientific model, it is time to re-examine that model.
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