Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Evolution and Why Labels Don’t Matter

Theists (especially Young Earth Creationists who deny the reality of evolution) love to make a big deal about the emergence of species, constantly asking for evidence of one species (or “kind”) turning into another, or asking how the “first” member of a species could have possibly shown up suddenly one day if it had no other member of its species to mate with, etc. Here’s the thing that these folks either do not understand or else choose to ignore, however:

We humans looooove labels. We just can’t help ourselves. We have this innate burning need to distinguish everything from everything else and give it all labels to make sure that everybody knows what we are talking about. We have chairs and we have beds. When somebody invents something that can be used as both a chair and a bed, we call it a futon rather than just admitting that “chair” and “bed” are arbitrary labels in the first place. We label eating utensils that have tines as “forks” and eating utensils that have bowl-like depressions as “spoons”. But then somebody comes up with a utensil that has tines and a bowl-like depression, and we have to come up with a new label “spork” (or “runcible spoon,” if you prefer) because we just can’t deal with something that contradicts our previously defined labels.

The same is true with biology. We have “cats” and we have “dogs” and we have “birds” and we somehow think that just because we have come up with these labels that nature somehow cares one whit about making sure that reality conforms with them. And, sure, it’s pretty obvious that cats and dogs and birds are pretty distinct from each other, but things get awfully muddy when you start labeling each individual species of cat, dog and bird. Not to mention ape. We have arbitrarily defined “species” as groups of animals that can interbreed with each other, but this is simply our way of labeling things and not a hard and fast natural law. That’s why there are things like “ring species” where one group of animals can interbreed with a similar group living in proximity to them, and that group can interbreed with another group that lives in proximity to them, etc., but you eventually get to a group that can interbreed with their closest neighbor but can not interbreed with the original group. We then feel compelled to label the last group a different species from the first group.

All of this is to say that, yes, evolution is true and occurring all the time and yes, this means that any labels we put on things with regard to species, genus, etc., are necessarily going to be imprecise and have gray areas and be subject to revision. Which is, of course, why it is so ironic when some people who deny evolution claim it’s impossible for one “kind” of animal to evolve into another “kind” over time, as if they themselves have some infallible way of labeling things.

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