Since reading Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen, I’ve been a big fan of biogeography. Biogeography is the science of what grows where (or lives where) and what the processes are affecting their distribution. Historical biogeography deals with the long history of life on earth and how certain species wound up where they are. For instance, the ratite birds – the ostrich of Africa, the rhea of South America, the cassowaries of Australia and New Guinea, the emu of Australia, and the kiwis of New Zealand.(1) These are fairly large, flightless birds all located in the southern hemisphere. At one time these birds were thought to have evolved separately and lost their ability to fly independently. Now it is thought, with the help of the theory of continental drift, that they all came from similar ancestors who lived on a large southern continent called Gondwanaland, which afterwards broke up into the smaller continents of South America, Africa, Australia, etc. Without continental drift it would be nearly impossible to account for the range of these flightless birds. How could it be accounted for that they dispersed to different continents from one source?
Like it or not, this is also what discourages a literal interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible. These birds, as all animals are supposed to have done in the Noah’s Ark story, did not fan out from a single origin coinciding with Mt. Ararat (the place in the Bible that Noah’s ark is supposed to have touched land again). It is continental drift, along with rising and falling sea levels, glaciation, and other processes, which account for many of the distributions observed in the natural world. Scientists piece together the stories of species from these clues and from fossils, and sometimes their genetic material. It is historical processes that explain what lives where and why.
By talking about historical processes I can only be talking about one thing — change. At one time the earth itself, its arrangements of land and sea were thought to be static — without change. It was a big hurdle for science to begin to admit that the earth itself could move and change as much as it does. The same has been true of biology. Darwin’s theory of evolution does no more really than account for change in the biological record. I really don’t want to go into all the arguments he puts forth, but change is integral to his theory. The theory of evolution accounts for biological change.
And this is what trips up people, I think. Many of our more religious thinkers seem to want to assume a position of “no change” or a static creation. Just because God is said to have created us, why does that necessarily assume we would never change? In Genesis where the snake is cursed by God after the fall, it says:
“The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.’ ” (Genesis, chapter 3, verse 14)
Wasn’t the serpent going “on his belly” already? Is it possible that after the fall some physical changes also occurred in the creation? Did lions, when their food was only from plants, already have their long sharp teeth? Maybe the Bible itself suggests a creation not entirely static after the fall.
I admit there are some drawbacks to Darwin’s theory of evolution. I’m not talking of the idea of our connectedness to the natural world. I’m talking about when we start to apply evolutionary principles to ourselves. Social Darwinism. What was the Holocaust, for instance, but a gargantuan delusion in the perfectability of a certain race of human beings over all others? Up to Hitler’s time there were many sources that seemed to put Europeans above other races and to propose their primacy with the help of evolution.(2) More delusions. We as humans may still be evolving, but we don’t know where that evolution is going or whether it will even be good for us (and the creation) or not. But we tread on thin ice when we try to apply evolutionary principles to ourselves, and religion provides a very important service for us when it teaches us to value every single life regardless of its economic utility or outward beauty. I may be critical of a literal interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark but there are some things in religion that are just plain indispensable. When we talk about human change, we should keep those things in mind.
(1) The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, by David Quammen. — NY: Touchstone, c1996. (pp. 194-198)
(2) See Hunter’s Civic Biology textbook (published 1915), the book and teaching of which provoked the Scopes Trial (or Monkey Trial) in Tennessee in 1925. See especially p. 196 of the excerpts here. It may have gotten evolution right, but it still proposed the superiority of some races over others.
Another book, taken at random, I guess, Lost Horizon, by James Hilton. — NY: William Morrow & Co., 1933, p. 138.